Cuba Today

Miracle or Mirage

by | Apr 20, 1998

Miracle or Mirage? A conference co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Inter-American Dialogue entitled “Cuba Today” explored this question in the context of recent events in Cuba. Debate centered on whether Cuba has experienced fundamental or merely cosmetic change, whether this change demands a policy response from the United States and, what form such a response should take. Panels on the Cuban economy and politics contested the depth of change and its meaning, while Bernard Cardinal Law and Ambassador James Dobbins suggested divergent proposals for the proper U.S. response.

Bernard Cardinal Law focused on short-term policies, including lifting the trade embargo against Cuba; Ambassador James Dobbins focused on long-term policies to build Cuba’s civil society for an eventual transition to democracy.

Bernard Cardinal Law argued that the Pope’s visit represents a culmination of changes in Cuba and requires a U.S. response. Cardinal Law rejected the method by which we currently measure policy change in Cuba – whether or not Castro remains in power – as immoral and inaccurate. Instead, he argued that the Pope’s visit should replace the Missile Crisis as the starting point for our policies toward Cuba. The Cardinal suggested concrete ways the Clinton administration could capitalize on this opportunity to turn something more than a mirage into something more akin to miracle. First, he called for the creation of a bipartisan commission on U.S.-Cuba relations. Second, he proposed several specific policies: (1) licensing direct flights to Cuba for humanitarian aid; (2) easing restrictions on remittances and travel between the U.S. and Cuba; (3) continued suspension of the trade bans required by the Helms-Burton law; and (4) an examination of whether or not the executive branch can grant general licenses for the sale of medicines and food to Cuba.

Ambassador Dobbins focused on the long-term goal of Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy. Recognizing that the trade embargo has neither toppled Fidel Castro nor inaugurated Cuban democracy, he focused on the potential to use an easing of the embargo to support a democratizing regime once one emerges. While the Cardinal suggested that U.S. action could improve the chances for democracy in Cuba, Dobbins seemed to argue that moves toward democracy within Cuba must precede a change in U.S. policy. Ambassador Dobbins mentioned how U.S. experience with democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and Latin America and our commitment to financially support democratic movements in Cuba would play a key role in the transition. He described the dilemma of U.S. policy as “how to help Cuban people without helping the Cuban regime,” suggesting that the most important role we can play is to support the construction of Cuba’s civil society.

Disagreement over the nature of change was most striking among the economists. This panel debated whether the crisis period from 1989 to 1993 owed more to external factors such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the U.S. trade embargo or to poor internal management. While steps toward economic liberalization since 1993 were applauded by all panelists, some found more hope in these limited steps than others. Optimists emphasized the positive direction of changes (toward freer markets); skeptics focused on their limited scope and evidence that liberalization has slowed and perhaps even reversed in the last two years.

The panel on politics also discussed signs of hope and reasons for caution. Recent changes in political institutions and leadership – such as the increase in young members of the Communist Party Central Committee – signal the potential for fundamental change in the future. Today change seems ephemeral; the opening of spaces for civil society in the last year – particularly for religious groups – seems to have disappeared with the Pope’s departure. While some growth in opposition group organizing was acknowledged, many obstacles to change remain, including the still strong role of the military and a growing disregard for the law as resort to black markets becomes necessary for survival.

Spring 1998


Kathleen O’Neill is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Economy and Government. She was a teaching fellow for Jorge Dominguez’s Cuba Revolution course last semester and is presently the teaching fellow for Deborah Yashar’s course on Comparative Politics of Latin America.

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