Thursday, May 19, 2005

United States policy on Cuba should return to a course once followed by former Presidents Bush and Clinton, according to a recent past U.S. envoy to Cuba.

Vicki Huddleston, former chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, talked with reporters at a breakfast hosted by Lexington Institute’s Philip Peters last Wednesday. She said the policy of more open contacts fostered by former President Bush, the current president’s father, ‘helped the Cuban people materially and improved Cuban behavior abroad.’ She said, ‘This is basically the policy that worked in Eastern Europe. So why not in Cuba as well?’

When the more open policy was in effect, she said, ‘Cuba withdrew forces from Africa and did not interfere in Central American electoral processes,’ such as the election lost by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Mrs. Huddleston was deputy and then director of the State Department’s Cuban affairs office from 1989-1993 during the elder Mr. Bush’s term in the White House.

She said ‘contact with the Cuban people is essential’ and American policy should return to ‘supporting private groups, helping churches and other people-to-people contacts.’ In this way, ‘the U.S. can help foster civic culture in Cuba,’ she said.

‘Casualties of the current policy of tightened sanctions include the Cuban artists,’ she said. In previous administrations, painters, writers and musicians — often guided by a muse at odds with Marxist dogma — not only flourished on the island but traveled outside.

For starters, she says the travel ban ‘should be lifted but the best we can expect is to return to the policies in effect during the later half of President Clinton’s second term and the first 18 months of George W. Bush’s first term.’ An easing should be ‘guided by political realities rather than going the whole nine yards’ of a full opening. Under the former policy, Cuban-Americans had the freedom to travel to the island. At present, they are limited to one trip every three years. Other visits are limited and restricted to those licensed to travel there for special purposes. Polling consistently shows the tightened policy is widely unpopular in the Cuban-American community.

Cuba has rejected administration talk of a quid-pro-quo relaxation of U.S. restrictions in return for Cuban domestic political reforms as ?another Platt Amendment.’ Mrs. Huddleston agreed ‘It is a Platt Amendment,’ referring to a U.S. law officially dropped in the mid-1930s that previously allowed direct U.S. intervention in Cuba’s internal affairs.

‘There is a real risk to U.S. security if nearby Caribbean nations like Cuba and Haiti are allowed to become failed states,’ Mrs. Huddleston warned. This could produce not only migration problems but a fertile field for terrorists, she said.

Conversation last week quickly turned to a 77-year-old anti-Castro activist arrested in Miami this Tuesday. Luis Posada Carriles is accused in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Mrs. Huddleston said ‘allegations against Posada fit the description of terrorism’ and tolerating him here would ‘undercut our strong anti-terror position worldwide.’

If America lacks jurisdiction or evidence to try him, Mrs. Huddleston said, ‘We should consider returning him for trial in Venezuela with guarantees that he would not be sent to Cuba, where it is unlikely he could get a fair trial.’ Otherwise another venue should be sought.

On ABC TV’s ‘Nightline’ Tuesday, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said Venezuela has sought Mr. Posada’s extradition ‘for 20 years, which long predates the government of [Fidel Castro’s friend] Hugo Chavez.’

The U.S., which in recent years ‘re-installed and then removed a head of state in Haiti, has a real moral obligation there,’ Mrs. Huddleston said. She was deputy chief of mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from 1993-95, during deployment of the Multinational Force that reinstalled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was later pulled out again, with U.S. help.

She questioned the notion seemingly held by some ‘on the hard right’ that the United States can ‘impose democracy’ in Cuba. She also noted the tightened U.S. Cuban sanctions have been somewhat thwarted by Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez, who supplies Cuba with oil in a barter arrangement.

‘Since Venezuela is also a major supplier of oil to the United States’ through its outlet Citgo, ‘the U.S. indirectly subsidizes Mr. Castro’ because of the fungibility of oil and money.

Any very direct U.S. challenge to the Castro government would meet strong resistance from all Latin America, she agreed. Further, Mr. Castro may have another potential card up his sleeve in Brazil’s new leftist President Lula da Silva.

Mrs. Huddleston questioned the wisdom of U.S. commercial television blackouts of broadcasts to Cuba and advocated providing Cubans more radios and increased Internet access.

Mrs. Huddleston retired from the Foreign Service in late January. Her most recent ambassadorial posting was in the northwest African nation of Mali. And she was a spring fellow at Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard.

Anyone wanting further insight from our erstwhile woman in Havana needn’t wait long. Her next major project is a book on Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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