America’s hard-line policy toward Cuba actually hurts efforts to improve societal conditions for the Cuban people, an expert on U.S.-Cuban relations told a Bend audience Thursday night.
“The more you threaten, the more you try to throttle the Cuban economy … any Cuban government, whether it’s (Premier Fidel) Castro or anybody else, who has any sense of pride in nationality would react defensively,” Dr. Wayne Smith told about 100 people at a gathering hosted by the High Desert Forum (http://www.hdforum.org).
“Our policy is an impediment toward a more open society in Cuba and it’s totally counterproductive to our interests,” said Smith, who directed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana until relations between the two countries were broken in 1961.
Smith touched on but did not dwell on the recent Elian Gonzalez affair, stating his opinion that the Clinton administration and Attorney General Janet Reno did the right thing in snatching the boy from Miami relatives, whom he said had no real interest in negotiating an end to the matter.
“Cuba isn’t important at all” to the United States, either in terms of being a serious threat to U.S. security or the potential of a large trading partner, Smith said. “If they had 100 million people there, we wouldn’t have an embargo. They’d be too big a trading partner,” he said. But the 40-year-old embargo is maintained in part due to inertia, he said, and also because of the small but very vocal and powerful Cuban-American community in south Florida.
Legislation pushed through by congressmen who back the Cuban exiles “means the United States is blocked from any negotiation with any future (Cuban) governments,” since it insists, contrary to international law, that Cuban-Americans be compensated for their lost property.
Still, Smith said he’s “a little more hopeful than I was six months ago” that the two countries might eventually reconcile their differences. The Gonzalez case, he said, is the “first time I can remember (that) the two governments are on the same side of the issue.”
The Cuban-Americans in Miami, and more specifically Elian’s relatives, “have so blatantly defied the law, defied the federal government, that I think the American people are reacting sensibly to that. I am completely baffled by the reactions of political leaders, on both sides of the aisle.”
Smith said he was sorry that it came down to a show of force, but added, “What was Janet Reno supposed to do? It is not a matter of the Clinton administration trying to reach out to Cuba, to improve the relationship. This has never been a high priority of the Clinton administration.” Instead, it was purely a matter of upholding the law, he said, or 1,000s of Americans seeking custody of children now overseas would have a precedent set against them.
Smith told a questioner the U.S. should at least remove food and medicine from its embargo of Cuba, areas in which he claims America is in violation of international law.
But he added that with some 200,000 Americans visiting Cuba each year, and U.S. companies doing business there through third parties, changes may come and the embargo may become a moot point, over time. “U.S. policy is almost irrelevant,” he said. “There’s no greater way to convince people to do something than to tell them they can’t,” he joked.
Smith’s nightmare: Burger King in old Havana
Smith also said he is somewhat of two minds, when it comes to the possibility of greater U.S. business involvement in Cuba and the impact that could have. “I have a horror of Burger Kings in old Havana,” he said.
Smith said no new Castro is waiting in the wings, and he expects a collective leadership would take over, at least initially, upon Castro’s passing. He also said he is no Castro apologist. “I am appalled by some of the things he has done,” Smith said. “He has shot a lot of my friends.”
“My friends in Cuba acknowledge that life is difficult, that it’s not as open a society as they wish,” Smith said. But they add, “It is our country. It is a bitter wine, but it is our wine.”
Smith said he has a nightmare of an aging Castro becoming “so illogical and irrational” that tensions escalate. But he professes hope, nonetheless, of better days to come.
“Cuba will move toward a new model,” he said, “and it will move much faster and more efficiently with Fidel out of the way.”