Sunday, August 13, 2006

The future of Cuba should be decided by Cubans alone

Guardian Unlimited
The future of Cuba should be decided by Cubans alone

As the Castro era fades, the US should lift the 45-year-old blockade of the island and stop treating it like stolen US property

Duncan Campbell
Monday August 14, 2006
The Guardian

'It may be as the pages of history are turned, brighter futures and better times will come to Cuba," wrote Winston Churchill in 1895. "It may be that future years will see the island as it would be now, had England never lost it - a Cuba free and prosperous under just laws and patriotic administration, throwing open her ports to the commerce of the world, sending her ponies to Hurlingham and her cricketers to Lords."

It is nearly 250 years since Britain briefly occupied Cuba in 1762, but the island is still the object of ambitions entertained by more powerful nations. As Fidel Castro celebrates his 80th birthday with a picture and a message from his hospital bed, in frail health and with rumours as to the future governance of the country swirling around him, it is worth considering why Cuba has exercised such a fascination over the world for so long.

Last week both President Bush and Condoleezza Rice were holding forth about Cuba, the latter in a personal address to Cubans on the island. Both have denied that they have any plans for a military intervention, despite the presence of a suggestive classified annexe to their recently published US report from the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
Changes to US immigration rules for Cubans announced over the weekend are likely to trigger well-publicised defections and long queues outside the US interests section in Havana at a sensitive time. But there would at least seem to be some recognition of the reality that the US public, with the exception of a dwindling band of exiles in Miami, would not countenance such a move and that any force would meet a much stronger response than, for example, Grenada was able to muster when it was invaded by the US in 1983.

But it is also worth recalling - as we learn from a new Channel 4 documentary, 638 Ways to Kill Castro - that the CIA has over the years been involved in numerous plots to kill the man who has been their bete rouge for half a century. This, in itself, tells us much about why relations between the two countries are so grim, and one can well imagine the shock and awe that would have been visited on any country that had tried to bump off a US president so assiduously.

Cuba has tended to be seen either as a socialist paradise (great health service, great schools, great supporter of revolutionary movements, great music, great beaches) or as close to a totalitarian hell (no free elections, no free press, no free movement, persecution of homosexuals) with little in between.

When Fidel Castro came to power the CIA assessment of him was that he enjoyed the support of the large majority of Cuban people but, despite that, plots were hatched to dislodge him and his government. This evidently had nothing to do with promoting democracy, as US governments had and have long been more than happy to see the backs of democratically elected governments who make the mistake of being socialist (Chile 1973, Nicaragua 1980s, Venezuela 2002). It had much more to do with the US belief that Cuba was really American property like its fellow Latin-Caribbean island, Puerto Rico.

Forty-five years have now passed since the suffocating US trade embargo was first imposed on the island to try to bring it to heel. What has it achieved? The Cuban government blames it for the severe economic hardship the island faces. Osvaldo Paya, the outspoken opponent of Fidel Castro, says it damages all Cubans and is also counterproductive - in that it gives justification to the Cuban government to impose what measures it sees fit to defend a country under siege. Tellingly, Paya gets little coverage from the Miami exiles, who do not appreciate the fact that he does not favour their aim of a wholesale reacquisition of the extensive property portfolio they left behind. The blockade has much more to do with placating those angry exiles who vote in the state governed by Jeb Bush - this is truly a story of brotherly love on all sides - than with seeking to help Cubans.

Whether Fidel Castro recovers, resumes the reins and carries on for another decade or whether we are already witnessing a long goodbye, there seems to be one underlying message from inside Cuba, both from those who support Castro and those who oppose him: this is Cuba's story, and the changes that will inevitably come must come from within and not be imposed from the outside. If the Bush administration is really interested in more than score-settling and vote-catching, it should lift the embargo immediately so that Cuba can, as Churchill imagined, throw open its ports to the commerce of the world and allow US citizens to visit the island and see for themselves whether it is heaven, hell or something else entirely. The "battle of ideas" that Castro has recently been urging Cubans to engage in should continue in earnest, with a place for every voice and every idea. Imperial powers past or present should keep their hands off. Pity about the cricket, though.

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