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Our Man In Havana: Carter, Castro And Cuba By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, May 20, 2002


LET US TAKE a deep breath this time, and give the devil his due. As Jay Nordlinger, Lowell Ponte and other shrewd observers have noted, there is not a left-wing or anti-American dictator around that Jimmy Carter has not groveled before. Always touted by many liberals as our greatest ex-President, Mr. Carter has often dishonored the office he held and humiliated himself at the same time. He has backed Castro up by taking the Cuban dictator’s side in denying the charge made by the State Department’s John Bolton, that Cuba has the potential to export technology that can be used for biological weapons to rogue and terrorist nations. But to most observers, Carter’s readiness to bolster Castro’s denialwhen Carter has no expertise to even judge whether in fact such exports are taking placemakes him look foolish, and is being widely criticized.

But with Carter’s televised speech to Cuba on last week, he has unlike Jesse Jackson, for example done what no other Castro friendly public figure has accomplished or even attempted. He has, as Walter Russell Mead argued in The Wall Street Journal, (www.opinionjournal.com) told the Cuban public that Cuba not only violates the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but that it also denies free speech and political rights to the regime’s non-violent opponents. Most importantly, Carter cited by name the "Varela initiative," an attempt by Cuba’s brave dissidents to demand democracy via a petition initiative that most Cuban residents have never even heard about. Through dedicated perseverance, and working under the most impossible of conditions, the Cuban dissenters obtained 11,000 signatures to present to the Cuban legislature-on a petition that calls for political freedom, free assembly, and free elections. According to Cuban law, any petition signed by over 10,000 citizens has to be considered. Cuban dissenters were expecting the Castro regime to try and invalidate the signatures, claiming, for example, that they were not notarized. With Jimmy Carter’s endorsement of the Verela campaign, it will now be that much harder to do.

For Cuba, the Verela initiative may be seen as the equivalent of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77—the January 1977 statement of Czech intellectuals, writers and artists on behalf of political freedom and the end to Communism. Signatories of that Charter, such as then playwright and now President Vaclev Havel, served jail sentences as a result. In Cuba, prominent dissenters such as recently released activist Vladimir Roca have paid a similar penalty. To stand for political freedom while living and working in a Communist police state takes a great deal of guts. But now, under Castro’s very nose, and with the tight Cuban censorship loosened for his speech, Jimmy Carter directly endorsed the hopes and dreams of Cuba’s dissident community. It is, as Mead writes, "a call for freedom and the rule of law that will awaken a whole generation to new political possibilities and ideas." Indeed, even the spokesman for the hard-line Cuban-American National Foundation noted their joy that Carter had specifically endorsed the Verela petition, instead of just presenting an abstract and non-threatening endorsement of human rights. Indeed, Mead goes so far as to compare Carter’s speech with the tough line towards the Soviet Union taken by Ronald Reagan during his presidency, when Reagan’s condemnation of the "Evil Empire" heartened Soviet dissidents and increased America’s prestige throughout the world.

Carter’s support of Verela, however, is only a starting point. That is because Carter tried to balance his call for political freedom with a demand for a unilateral end to the US embargo, as well as with unwarranted praise for supposed but actually non-existent advances in education, health care and welfare. An end to the embargo, of course, has long been the quintessential Castro demand. The dictator was clearly willing to let Carter’s support of freedom be heard, in exchange for a ringing call by Carter for a major change in US policy towards Cuba. At the same time, aside from the time of the actual broadcast, his state controlled media has done whatever it can to see to it that Carter’s words about democracy are not really available to the Cuban population. Indeed, although Carter’s speech was broadcast live, Cuban TV saw to it that it became more than difficult to hear what Carter had to say. Castro remained, as The New York Times reporter on the scene put it, "sufficiently in control" of the event. The audience was stacked with handpicked apparatchiks ready to argue and condemn Carter at the talk’s end. Most importantly, the vast majority of Cubans did not see the speech. They were either unaware of it in advance, or were on their way home from work. Moreover, The Washington Post reported, most viewers could only hear those who challenged Castro and who launched lengthy attacks on the Verela project. When Carter spoke in English during the question and answer period, the state TV broadcast a simultaneous translation in Spanish, in which the interpreter’s voice and Carter’s were broadcast at the same volume, so that viewers could not make out what either Carter or the translator was saying. If they wanted to wait and read about Carter’s speech in Granma, the official Cuban paper, they would find that it omitted all mention of Carter’s comments about democracy and political rights. The only time its coverage mentioned human rights was to quote Carter’s phrase that the US has had its own human rights problems. One listener commented, "it’s a joke," as he held up an inaudible tape of Carter’s speech in one hand and the Cuban newspaper in his other. There is obviously no chance that the paper will do what Carter suggested-publish the full text of the Verela petition demanding free speech, freedom of assembly, free elections and more free enterprise.

Castro also knows that there is growing pressure within the United States to end the embargoa joint Cuba Working Group, composed equally of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives, has just made the argument for an end to the embargo, and their case coincides with that of much of the US business community, which is chafing at the bit to gain entry into the untapped Cuban market. The Working Group members do have some good arguments. Trade, investment and travel, they believe, will open Cuba to pro-democracy sentiment, weaken Castro’s grip on the island, and pave the way for internal democratization. It would also, they claim, deprive Castro of the argument that his people’s economic misery is due to the US embargo.

The problem is that such steps would not necessarily lead to a change in the system, or to increased democratization. Indeed, Castro is a fan of the Chinese model, in which a move towards the market takes place while the Communist monopoly of power is maintained. Castro’s hope, obviously, is that Jimmy Carter’s trip will result in more American tourists and therefore an influx of more American dollars, which he desperately seeks. He also hopes that it will reinforce those in Congress seeking a policy change. That desire was for Castro worth the risk of letting Jimmy Carter have a one-shot chance to speak up on behalf of political democracy and an end to the one-party state. He was especially grateful that Carter put his criticism in the context of fulsome and unwarranted praise for Castro’s supposed dedication to great social and economic advances in health, education and welfare.

Nevertheless, as Vicki Huddleston, head of the US Interests Section in Havana put itshe is essentially our equivalent of the American AmbassadorCarter’s "courage was formidable, and a good example to others." Now she intends to use his appearance to distribute clear videotapes of the speech to activists the office regularly assists with news and magazine articles, since it "underlies our commitment to free speech." And although she disagrees with Carter’s call to end the embargo, she stresses that he was "courageous, clear and eloquent" about the real nature of "the system in Cuba."

Later this week, George W. Bush is set to speak in Miami, where it is expected he will not only announce continuation of the US embargo, but also new measures to make it harder for American citizens to illegally travel to Cuba for vacation. He is also expected to announce new measures to hand out radios to Cubans so that they can clearly hear the jammed "Radio Marti" broadcasts from Florida, and new efforts to make access to the television broadcasts from TV Marti accessible on the island where to date its reception has been effectively jammed, as well as new methods to aid the beleaguered Cuban dissidents.

When this takes place, look for some left-wing and liberal Democrats to begin echoing Castro propaganda that the US is illegally interfering with Cuban sovereignty, as well as giving credibility to Castro’s arguments that the dissidents are tools of the US. In reality, such claims will have no merit. Look back to the days of the Polish Communist government’s brutal suppression of Solidarity, and the Soviet backed declaration of martial law. It was then that the Reagan administration, with the full support of Lane Kirkland and the AFL-CIO, and the powerful backing of the Catholic Church, all joined forces to provide the nascent movement with facilities to continue their struggle, including Xerox and fax machines, printing equipment and the like. Trade, tourism and business dealings alone would not have made the dent that ended with the fall of the Soviet empire. If viewed in this way, the new Bush proposals can be seen as reinforcement for a transition to democracy, and as consistent with Jimmy Carter’s call for political freedom in Cuba.

Without such new tough measures, Castro’s secret police will revert to the usual methods of repressionincluding surveillance, harassment and eventual arrest of those brave dissenters who demand real political freedom. European nations and Canada will continue to trade with and invest in Cuba, as the Castro regime sees to it that all dollars coming into the economy are guided by state-controlled enterprises, so that money will be used to tighten the regime’s hold on power, rather than lead to growing internal convulsion. To end the embargo overnight without demanding any quid pro quo, as demanded by Carter and the Working Group, is to give Castro an unnecessary and dangerous political victory, without any assurance that change will take place. A wiser policy is to consider is steps that tie any movement towards ending the embargo with a negotiated commitment to begin a transition to democracy in Cuba. In other words, if Castro wants an end to the embargo by the US, let him first take steps demanded by Cuban democrats that begin opening up the political process. Only with such an approach, will Carter’s words have meaning. In the meantime, despite all of his limitations, let us thank Jimmy Carter for using his podium on behalf of political freedom in Cuba.


Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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