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The posturing and potential of latest U.S. changes on Cuba

Lucia Newman

By Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

January 15, 1999
Web posted at: 9:12 a.m. EST (1412 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

HAVANA (CNN) -- This week, the U.S. State Department declared it was "disappointed" by Cuba's cold -- if not hostile -- public reaction to Washington's new policy initiatives.

These initiatives were designed, according to the White House, to "help the Cuban people" and not the Cuban government.

The measures include:

  • Expanding the number of U.S. residents eligible to send money to Cubans.
  • Allowing the sale of food and agricultural products to non-government entities in Cuba.
  • Allowing an increase in the number of direct charter flights between both countries.
  • Allowing an expansion of cultural and sports exchanges.

The idea, according to the Clinton administration, is to help decrease the Cuban government's control over its citizens by providing them with greater economic and intellectual independence.

In addition, the administration's goal is to "support the development of peaceful independent activity and civil society in order to promote a transition to a free, independent and democratic state."

The State Department's stated disappointment may be difficult to understand, as it well knows its new measures are designed not to please Cuba's Communist government but to undermine it, as part of Washington's stated policy of fostering "peaceful democratic change" on the island.

The real questions for analysts are why Washington decided to implement the new measures when it did, and what their real impact will be.

Still 'subversive'

According to the Cuban government, the announcements are "more of the same," a reference to a nearly four-decades-old U.S. policy of trying to bolster dissent in order to rid the country of its Communist system.

Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon denounced the move to allow all U.S. residents and licensed institutions to send money to Cuba as a subversive and counterrevolutionary ploy, a "tool for bribery to buy people's consciences."

U.S. dollars are used in Cuba   

While Cuba welcomes and indeed needs the money that Cuban-Americans send their relatives on the island, the government's stated belief is that the new policy is designed to allow anyone to finance existing or future opposition groups.

The conditions set for the sale of food and agricultural products to non-government entities, such as private farmers and the Catholic Church, were also denounced in Havana as subversive and unacceptable. In Havana's view, any policy that gives other groups the ability to purchase and distribute a commodity as vital as food weakens the government's control and empowers possible enemies of the state.

By contrast, many ordinary Cubans applauded the new U.S. measures when they were first announced, in the belief that they signaled an intention on Washington's part to ease frictions and facilitate more normal relations between the countries.

Last week's nationally televised address by Alarcon was clearly intended to shatter any such illusions, by underscoring the one point on which Havana and Washington have no argument. That is, that the fundamentals of U.S. policy -- the economic embargo against Cuba and the desire to promote an end to Communist rule in Cuba -- remain intact.

Timing dubbed political

The measures were "clearly designed to stop any major change in U.S. policy," according to U.S.-Cuban affairs consultant Pamela Falk, based in New York.

Indeed, they were announced just at a time when many prominent Republicans, including three former secretaries of state, had joined forces with 24 Republican and Democratic senators seeking to have U.S. policy toward Cuba reviewed.

Their proposal was to create a bipartisan commission similar to the Kissinger Commission, set up in the 1980s to reformulate policy in Central America.

After weeks of saying it was studying the proposal carefully, the White House announced it was rejecting the idea in favor of last week's less controversial measures.

The reason, say some Washington insiders, is that the Clinton administration, and particularly Vice President Al Gore, does not want to risk the wrath of the U.S. anti-Castro lobby in advance of a presidential campaign.

Grains of wheat, seeds of change?

The new measures, though modest, certainly have the potential to undermine Cuba's system. Proof is the endorsement they received from Sen. Jesse Helms and the Cuban-American National Foundation.

Direct charter flights between the U.S. and Cuba resumed last year   

But a lot depends on who takes advantage of the changes and how.

While it is true that the new and more flexible rules for sending money to Cubans give greater economic autonomy to people, and therefore make them less dependent on the Communist state, it is equally correct to assume that this will help boost Cuba's cash-starved economy, thereby taking pressure off the government.

This week, a group of American farmers who are members of the U.S. Grains Council, and who are interested in selling food to Cuba, visited Havana, exploring business possibilities.

Havana has thus far indicated it won't allow non-government entities to clinch any such deal. But authorities could possibly be persuaded to change their minds, since they ultimately would retain veto power on a case-by-case basis over who could trade privately with Americans.

While the new measures may be more of the same, as Alarcon says, there is a lot more of it.

And there are many on both sides of the Florida Straits who believe that small but quantitative changes could eventually lead to a qualitative change in the Cold War relationship between the United States and Cuba.

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