The Cuba deal: how Raúl Castro duped Obama
Néstor T. Carbonell, in Forbes
Mr. Carbonell is an international affairs consultant and author of
"And The Russians Stayed: The Sovietization of Cuba."
On December 17, following a year and a half of secret negotiations with the Castro regime, President Obama trumpeted what many have called a historic breakthrough - a new course to normalize relations with Cuba.
The course, however, is not really new. It was pursued by 10 previous American presidents who tried to engage Fidel Castro directly or through intermediaries both during and after the Cold War. The desired rapprochement failed mainly because the Cuban dictator would not agree to stop his subversive activities and open up the island, or offer a modicum of respect for human rights.
What’s new about President’s Obama’s détente is that he is engaging Raúl Castro -not his ailing brother Fidel- and has not established any preconditions for normalization.
How different is Raúl from Fidel? He is certainly less charismatic and verbose than his older brother, but more focused and disciplined. While Fidel roused and manipulated the masses, Raúl, with Soviet assistance, quietly bolstered the armed forces and built the totalitarian infrastructure of the regime. Despite their contrasting physique and personality, they both share a visceral hatred of the United States, cold-blooded ruthlessness and mastery of deceit.
Fidel’s duplicity, combined with a fair amount of histrionics, is well known. He bragged about tricking the Cuban people, who fell for his promise to restore democracy, and unabashedly proclaimed in December 1961: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and will be one until the last day of my life.”
Fidel also was able to dupe U.S. presidents and senior government officials into believing that he would be amenable to a fair settlement of all outstanding disputes. Even David Rockefeller, a strong advocate of engagement who had a good rapport with Fidel, felt that he could help strike a deal with him.
Heading an impressive delegation of foreign policy heavyweights, Rockefeller presented to Fidel Castro in February 2001 a proposal developed by the Council on Foreign Relations to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba. After five hours of marathon discussions which ended at 4AM, Fidel rejected the “half-measures” proposed by the Council and demanded the unconditional lifting of the U.S. embargo without acquiescing to any significant economic and political reforms. A disillusioned Rockefeller wrote in his memoirs: “Castro harangued us continuously throughout the night…I think there is little possibility for change while Castro remains in power…”
But that was Fidel Castro. What about with Raúl now calling the shots and posing as a pragmatist? Even though Raúl had only introduced non-systemic, revocable reforms to alleviate the appalling living conditions on the island, Obama thought that he could be lured or tamed with goodwill gestures and concessions. So shortly after taking office in 2009, the President relaxed restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba and voted in favor of inviting the Cuban regime to rejoin the Organization of American States, only to be rebuffed by both Castro brothers.
Raúl then played the hostage trick on Obama, and it worked. He arrested Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was distributing computer equipment to the Jewish community in Havana to gain access to the internet, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Fearing that Gross, in poor health, might die behind bars in Cuba,the President accepted the swap proposed by Castro -Gross for three convicted Cuban spies, including one serving a life sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to commit murder. Trying to balance out the uneven swap, Castro released several dozen political prisoners, a bargaining chip he uses when it suits his purpose.
To conduct the secret negotiations, which were broadened beyond the exchange of prisoners, Castro assigned two of his sharpest KGB-trained intelligence officers, fluent in English and well versed in diplomacy as a cover for espionage in the U.S., Josefina Vidal and Gustavo Machin. The deal they were able to extract from the American delegation is so one-sided in favor of the Castro regime that it could well be called the Cuban Munich.
Indeed, from a weak position, with Cuba in dire straits and facing the possible loss of its Venezuelan financial lifeline, Castro got pretty much what he wanted. And Obama, who surrendered the U.S. leverage of continued economic pressure on the Cuban regime and support for the dissident movement, got virtually nothing in return.
The U.S. will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba while repression continues on the island, and will ship telecommunications technology with no assurance that censorship will end. In addition, the Castro regime will receive more dollars from U.S. “purposeful visits,” which will flow to the owners of the tourist industry in Cuba: the military.
But for Castro, more important than those concessions is the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of terrorist states which would open doors to the IMF, World Bank and other international financial institutions. His regime gets this provision despite smuggling 240 tons of heavy weapons to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions, maintaining close links to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and harboring dozens of fugitive terrorists and criminals, including one of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists, Assata Shakur.
To meet Castro’s ultimate requirement for normalization of relations, President Obama promised to seek congressional approval for the unconditional lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. This would open the floodgates for U.S. investments in bankrupt Cuba, but in a subordinate position to the only authorized partner -the Cuban government- which controls the economy, hires and fires the labor force, and pockets 92 cents on every dollar of each worker’s salary. Not quite Deng Xiaoping’s model of capitalism.
Not content with that, the cagey Raúl Castro surprised the White House last monthwith two additional demands that did not surface during the negotiations: payment by the U.S. to Cuba of reparations for the alleged damages caused by the embargo (his claim is for $100 billion), and the return to Cuba of the U.S. Naval Base of Guantanamo. Moreover, he declared that he will not change his Socialist system - not one iota, he emphasized. So democracy, human rights and free enterprise are out.
The Cold War may be over but Raúl Castro seems intent on reigniting it. Last year, he offered Putin an espionage listening post on the island, and is currently training and equipping Venezuela’s repressive forces in support of President Maduro’s plan to Cubanize his country.
The only way out of the President’s one-sided deal with Cuba is not to give the deceitful Cuban ruler a blank check, but to insist on a step-by-step quid pro quo that would safeguard the interests and security of the U.S., as well as the long-fought aspirations of freedom-loving Cubans.
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