When Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama, I was reminded of his praise for Fidel Castro before a congressional committee in 2003 and wondered if he had ever done anything more on his behalf than express publicly his admiration for him. It has now been revealed that his successor, Condoleezza Rice, whom I have ignored for most of her tenure because she is eminently ignorable and also because she has a name that I cannot spell without a significant loss of brain cells, conspired actively on Fidel Castro's behalf since she became Secretary of State. Her efforts to "normalize" relations with Castro culminated in sending a high-level delegation from to Havana, headed by its the State Department's then Inspector-General, Howard Krongard, to explore the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba. Rice obviously bought into the idea that the regime was undergoing some kind of liberal transformation, or even democratic transition, in the wake of Castro's supposed retirement and considered giving the process a further impetus by endorsing it before the putrid plant had bore any fruits. Her plan to endorse a chimera and reward an illusion was duly communicated to her boss, who did not shoot down her idea but advised her to wait to implement it after the presidential elections, that is, until the Republicans could dupe Cuban-Americans for one last time. I suppose it was considerate of Bush not to sabotage McCain's candidacy by revealing this "December Surprise." Or, perhaps, fabricating a financial debacle just before the election was deemed sufficient cooperation from the White House. I have already said, in jest, that George Bush had a vested interest in having the worst president in U.S. history succeed the next-to-worst. Now I am not laughing at my own joke anymore.
Every word that I have ever written about George Bush in the last eight years has been redolent with the apprehension of betrayal. Among U.S. presidents he was especially smarmy in his protestations of adherence to the cause of "Cuba Libre." Obviously, something got lost in the translation because most Cuban exiles couldn't get enough of his labia (witness Val Prieto's undying appetite for same). In truth, however, since the time of Richard Nixon, who officially ended all U.S. attempts to overthrow Castro, there has not been a single U.S. president whether Republican or Democrat who has not considered or even brought to a near consummation the so-called normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations despite repeated public assurances (to us) that they would not seek a rapprochement with the Castro regime while the tyrant continued to violate the human rights of the Cuban people.
Gerald Ford, eager to replicate Nixon's coup de theatre in China, on a smaller but no less interesting stage, came within a week of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba. The invasion of Angola put an end to Ford's hopes of lifting the Plantain Curtain and "liberating" Cuba as he "liberated" Poland. Jimmy Carter, too, entertained the same hopes and opened an Interests Section in Havana in anticipation of the resumption of full relations when Castro unleashed the Mariel boatlift and sent his Afrika Korps into Ethiopia. Even Ronald Reagan, the cold warrior who despised détente, gave it a try in Cuba, sending General Vernon Walters as his personal envoy to Fidel Castro, but Castro, then sitting pretty on a mountain of Soviet rubbles, had nothing to gain by succumbing to Reagan's advances or Bush pere's, who was too overwhelmed reaping Reagan's harvest in Eastern Europe to pay much attention to Cuba.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Castro never complained about the trade embargo but ridiculed it as an abject failure which had not preempted Cuba's development but prompted it. The end of Soviet subsidies caused Castro to change the party line: the "blockade," and, by implication, U.S. estrangement from Cuba, was now to blame for all of the island's woes, past and present. Nevertheless, Castro responded to Bill Clinton with his customary disdain, unleashing the 1994 Balsero Crisis in order to fortify Fortress Cuba. Clinton, who feared a repetition of the 1980 exodus, gave Castro what he wanted, which was not diplomatic recognition but the "Wet Foot/Dry Foot" policy, which committed the U.S. to guarding Castro's borders and returning refugees to Cuba who did not reach its own. Castro used the good offices of the Clinton administration strictly for propaganda purposes, such as the shooting of the unarmed "Brothers-to-Rescue" airplane over international waters and the kidnapping and forcible repatriation of Elián González, relying on its disposition not merely to forgo retaliation but to do its bidding whenever possible.
I, for one, was frankly shocked when Clinton concluded his second term without restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. The credit, I suppose, must go to Al Gore, who surely prevailed on Bill Clinton not to further alienate the Cuban-American vote by "normalizing" relations with Cuba; but the backlash came nonetheless and supposedly cost Al Gore the presidency, although he had actually opposed Elián's deportation to Cuba.
George Bush credited Cuban-Americans with his election victory in 2000, though, really, his margin of victory was so small in Florida that almost any group could have provided it, even African-Americans. Cuban exiles got very little in exchange for their unconditional support of Bush, however. Bush was always stressing his personal commitment to a free Cuba, but never deviated from Clinton's policy of unilateral accommodation of the Castro regime, upholding the "Wet Foot/Dry Foot" policy twice as long as Clinton did and presiding over the piecemeal dismantling of the trade embargo till nothing remained of it but the proscription against selling on credit to Cuba, which is itself under constant attack by (mostly) Republican congressmen from the Farm Belt.
It was Powell, again, who made the relaxation of the trade embargo and prospective resumption of full diplomatic ties with Communist Cuba possible when he declared, during a visit to Brazil in 2001, that Cuba was no longer a security threat to Latin America despite being on the State Department's own "List of Terrorist States" and running its own its biological weapons programme. Not only did Powell's unfounded assertion give the green light for the unchecked advance of Communism in the region, it also implied that Castro's predations on his primary victims, the Cuban people, were of no consequence to the U.S.; and that if Castro would just be content to limit his tyranny to Cuba's own borders the U.S. would not object or interfere. The failure of the Bush administration to obtain a condemnation of the Castro regime at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and then its ineffectual opposition to the Commission's demise and replacement by a U.N. Committee controlled by the worst violators of human rights in the world, including Cuba, demonstrated to what extent the U.S. had deprioritized not only human rights abuses in Cuba but anywhere else in the world. Castro's crackdown on 75 dissidents in 2003 was no doubt attributable in part to America's new laissez-faire attitude towards human rights. The Bush administration's response to Cuba's "Black Spring" was to punish the Cuban people and Cuban exiles by endeavoring to drive a wedge between them by restricting remittances and family contacts while taking no punitive actions against the regime itself. The same revanchist attitude towards the Cuban people (not the regime) was in evidence again this Fall when Bush vetoed any easing of these restrictions in the wake of devastating hurricanes. One of the reasons offered for this refusal was that such assistance might "destabilize" the regime (the same rationale used by the regime in refusing aid from the U.S. and European Community). And there is the key to Bush's approach towards Cuba over the last 8 years: do nothing for good or ill that would loosen Castro's hold on the Cuban people because he alone, or the system of repression that he created, can maintain order in Cuba and prevent a social explosion. I have dubbed this Bush's "Containment of Freedom" policy. The final object of such a policy, of course, is to institutionalize Castroism in Cuba forever.
The disclosure of Rice's proposals to "normalize" relations with Cuba and Iran in the waning days of the Bush administration will probably derail both initiatives. Even supporters of both measures have cautioned the lame duck president to leave those decisions to President-elect Obama, who must live with the consequences for the next four years.
Yes, George, don't usurp Obama's right to screw us, if not for his sake, then for the sake of the Republican Party. Although, really, what can George Bush care about a party that he has destroyed virtually singlehandedly?
Perhaps Barack Obama is the culmination rather than the exception to 50 years of betrayals by U.S. presidents. Indeed, Obama may even be praised for his candour in announcing his betrayal of the Cuban people before the fact rather than after.