Where did one of the architects of President Kennedy’s main program for Latin America, godfather of the Alliance for Progress, come from in 1961? In what hands did Ronald Reagan (1981-88) and George W. Bush (2001-2008) place their most important offices for the western hemisphere: those that coordinated the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and in the Department of State during the failed coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002? Who did Clinton and Obama pick for second position in the Department of Defense bureaucracy toward the region? What led George W. Bush to choose his commerce secretary in his second term? What is the reason for President Trump’s proposal for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank?
The answers to all these questions have one ingredient in common: it’s a Cuban-American. More exactly, one that is opposed to the government and the prevailing economic, political and social order in Cuba.
Now, if it’s a question of U.S. policy towards the island, what would have to be clarified would rather be to what extent the presence of Cuban-Americans in hierarchical positions within Republican and Democratic administrations proves that this policy is dictated by a pressure group entrenched in Miami. Or seen differently, to what extent the command organs of that great power have been penetrated by some Cuban-Americans who share the same ideological fixation, with the evil purpose of “redirecting” it against the Cuban order.
The previous question could give way to two questions: is the appointment of the aforementioned decision-makers explained by the power of a Cuban-American lobby that represents historical exile? Is it up to these distinguished Cuban-Americans to engage or directly influence Cuba policy? What history reveals is not so. Ernesto Betancourt, a former official at Banco Nacional de Cuba, was already a technocrat for the Organization of American States (OAS) when he was chosen by Kennedy advisers for the Alliance project. Otto Reich had served as a military, business consultant, and administrator in USAID (US Agency for International Development) for the region when he joined the Oliver North team, survived the Iran-Contra scandal, and earned merit to be co-opted again by the Republican diplomacy. Pedro Pablo Permuy and Frank Mora passed the revolving door that gives congressional staffers and professors from military universities access to inter-American positions in the Department of Defense, thanks to the ebb and flow of Democratic administrations. Carlos Gutiérrez was the CEO of Kellogg (the cornflakes one) when he was appointed to Commerce by George W. Bush. Mauricio Claver-Carone held Treasury positions under that same Republican presidency, long before Donald Trump noticed him, not precisely for his anti-Cuban lobbying work in Congress, but during the electoral campaign in Florida, and invited him to the transition team in a Republican administration that had already raised the flag of reversing the entire Obama policy.
Certainly, in the selection of U.S. government personnel to prevent “other Cubas” in the hemisphere, in the 1960s and 1980s, the anti-Castro anti-communist harvest must have had some weight in the Reich curriculum and especially of Betancourt. Surely it was decisive when the director of Radio Martí had to be appointed in the 1985-2000 period, or whoever co-chaired (with Condoleezza Rice) the resounding Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, of which, by the way, nothing has been heard again since 2006. In any case, they all served the government that employed them, not as representatives of any Cuban-American lobby.
Until the early 1980s, it never occurred to anyone to argue that the Bay of Pigs, the multilateral embargo also known as a blockade, the October (or Missile) Crisis, the covert operations plan called Mongoose, the insurgency that unleashed a bloody civil war (1960-1965), the impunity of Omega 7, Alpha 66, CORU and other paramilitary organizations in the 1970s or any of the other axes of hostility against the Revolution responded to the power of a Cuban-American pressure group. Rather, they were part of a policy of force, conceived, formulated and applied by the national security command bodies, articulated in the National Security Council, where the decisive levers of that relationship have resided since the beginning of the conflict, above any of the congressional committees.
That, or rather, those diverse Cuban-American interest groups were there when the United States and Cuba sat down to negotiate peace in Southwest Africa in 1988, the migration agreement in 1994-1995, the return of Elián González in 2000, the cooperation in anticipation of an oil spill in Cuban waters, collaboration in the interception of undocumented migrants and drug traffickers between the Coast Guard and Border Patrol, the exchange of meteorological information, and other practices throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including for two Republican terms. They also preceded the exchange of prisoners and the restoration of diplomatic relations on 17D 2014.
All those actions were opposed in vain by that influential Cuban-American lobby that the media in Miami and Havana identify, in unusual coincidence, as an efficient cause of the Cuba policy.
What, then, was (and is) the real power and role of these anti-Castro lobbies in American politics? Their raison d’etre?
Take as a small example the political action committee (PAC) chaired in Washington by Mauricio Claver-Carone since 2003, with the title of US-Cuba Democracy PAC, whose stated objectives have been “the transition to democracy, the rule of law and the free market,” “opposing legislation that prolongs the Castro regime,” “defending the Western Hemisphere against the threats of this regime” and “preparing the next generation of Cuban democratic leaders.”
In its objectives and means, this conspicuous PAC did nothing but follow in the footsteps of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), which emerged 20 years before in the shadow of the Reagan administration, and which patented the formula of “American-style” local politics. In the footsteps of CANF, which incidentally lowered the flag of the embargo in 2009, the formula of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has consisted, in its words, in “raising funds to distribute in the form of political contributions to candidates nominated to the Congress of the United States and those who oppose any economic measure that, directly or indirectly, finances and prolongs the repressive machinery of the Castro regime and that commit to supporting legislation that seeks to intensify support for the internal opposition movement in Cuba.”
Measured by its deployment on that panel of interest groups and capital flows that interweave the curious fabric of democracy in the United States, this PAC has achieved punctual achievements, as the CANF did before in the domain of the political machinery of the south of Florida. However, not so much in its declared objectives towards the island, that is, to change the regime, defend the hemisphere from its threat (isolate it) and train new Cuban leaders. To put it in baseball lingo, while they have made runs in the American political championship under Republican administrations, they have failed to win a game in the Cuban league.
Now, if it were thought that this game doesn’t find its meaning in the terrain of Cuba here, but that rather it’s a pennant to compete in that of domestic politics there, in particular to dominate that of Florida and influence that of New Jersey, as well as placing itself in the major league of foreign policy towards the region, it would be seen more clearly, apart from its patriotic speeches, that the logic is not so much that of an exile determined to return and take charge of the island at an indefinite moment, but rather to manage a very specific local industry called anti-Castroism, which produces political and financial dividends.
If it were to be imagined for a moment, let’s say that for heuristic purposes, that this recalcitrant Cuban-American group had its hands firmly on the levers of the policy towards Cuba and that its motivations were strictly ideological, then it would not compromise for anything less than the stated requirements in title I and II of the Helms-Burton Act, that is, the surrender and unconditional transfer of decisions, according to its own program of reversal and dismantling of everything established in Cuba.
In other words, this scenario would not be limited to agreeing that everything called Revolution and socialism has been a mistake, a deviation in the course of the nation’s life, and to redeem the parties in a process of reconciliation and mutual confession of guilt and forgiveness, as some imagine in the framework of the possible. On its own terms, it would be a matter of approving those who are going to lead, certifying the rules of a pure neoliberal economy, redesigning security and defense institutions and, of course, recasting the status of relations with the United States and a political system to ensure it.
Regardless of this virtual scenario, and returning to the realm of real politics, perhaps the darkest side of the recalcitrant Cuban-American group is not the preaching of hatred or the real damage it may cause to the understanding between the governments of the United States and Cuba, but its capacity to dominate the political culture of emigration, stigmatize anyone who seeks understanding, preserve anti-Castroism as a pattern of correct-correct political culture, tighten the pegs of a silent majority that prefers normalization, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in problems, as well as to offer arguments to those who, on this side, are suspicious of dialogue with Cubans related to the national interest of the United States. The main effect of this force is to rekindle the anger and mistrust between the Cubans of the island and those of the emigration.
The milestones that this rapid time machine has recovered for our beginners’ chat, and that some connoisseurs seem to avoid when they define the conflict as a “bilateral dispute,” illustrate the role assigned to the “cadres” and the constituency of historical exile for the region. Although in the long run they have been inept for the purposes of the United States’ Cuba policy, they have been instrumental in pursuing their goals in Latin America and the Caribbean.
An example of this is the recent appointment of Claver-Carone as Trump’s candidate for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), in order to ensure “the leadership of the United States in important regional institutions and the advancement of prosperity and security in the western hemisphere.” This event also serves as a thermometer to measure the contradictory Latin American situation with respect to the years of the cold war. Although a few governments in the region have already aligned themselves with the Washington candidate, a notable group of former Latin American presidents and former foreign ministers, not exactly related to Cuban ideology, have expressed their joint rejection of the “proposed appointment of a U.S. citizen in the IDB” and their dismay at “this new attack by the United States government on the multilateral system based on rules agreed by member countries.”
This last-minute appointment, obviously not related to relations with Cuba, implies that Trumpism, even if defeated in November, seeks to place in the inter-American system cadres dedicated to continuing America First, a much more threatening prospect for the hemisphere than the vicissitudes of the United States’ relations with the island, which, as is known, is not a member of the IDB, the OAS, or the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Pact).
As can be seen, future U.S.-Cuba relations, like past ones, continue to be played in several fields at once, under the already indicated geopolitical arc.
How what happens within Cuba affects the dynamics and the degree to which the Cuban government modifies its policies, including the one applied during the Obama administration, is something much more complex than a struggle over “Obamism” or the supposed Cuban will to “implode” the course of normalization to what is reduced by ideological visions on one side and on the other. Analyzing this geopolitical complexity requires looking further.