Cuban diplomat visits U, calls for cooperation

Andrew Pritchard

Cuba’s highest-ranking diplomat in the United States told a University audience Monday that Cuba is willing to cooperate with the United States on many issues, despite current U.S. policy.

“We do think that the time has come for Cuba and the United States to make important and fundamental decisions for our two countries and our two peoples,” said Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, head of Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington, which is not considered an embassy since Cuba and the United States have no formal relations.

Speaking to an audience of several hundred people at the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Rodriguez spoke of the troubled history of U.S.-Cuba relations since that country’s 1959 revolution.

“The outcome of our social transformation has not been perfect, as no human creation is,” Rodriguez said. “But it has been guided by our belief that economic progress must be combined with social justice.”

Although the United States recognized Fidel Castro’s government in 1959, relations between the two countries deteriorated following Cuba’s seizure of U.S. property on the island and establishment of a one-party government, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

“I don’t think there’s been much change in Cuban relations for many, many years,” University political science professor David Samuels said.

Rodriguez said his government refused to pay U.S. owners of property seized during the revolution because the U.S. embargo eliminated much of the country’s most profitable foreign trade.

As early as 1960, Rodriguez said State Department memos described the embargo – which he called a blockade – as a means of undermining Cuba’s government.

U.S.-Cuba relations reached their lowest point with the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the next year’s crisis over Soviet missiles stationed on the island.

Tensions flared again during the 1970s when Cuba, then a Soviet satellite, deployed troops in Ethiopia and Angola and allowed the Soviet Union to station forces in Cuba.

During the 1980s, Cuba allowed large numbers of immigrants to depart for Florida. The United States and Cuba signed migration agreements in the mid-1990s to curtail the exodus.

With the Cold War’s end, Samuels said U.S. policy-makers have moved their criticisms of the island’s government away from its support for revolutionary movements abroad.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the rhetoric on Cuba has shifted to focus on the lack of democracy in Cuba and the presence of democracy in the rest of Latin America,” he said.

Rodriguez said the worldwide collapse of communist governments that ended the Cold War in 1989 reduced Cuba’s gross domestic product by 75 percent and almost completely eliminated its export markets.

At that time of economic crisis, the United States decided to step up the embargo, Rodriguez said.

“While the blockade has always been unjustified, today it has run out of pretexts,” he said. “Where is the enemy? Where is the Soviet Union?”

Congress made the U.S. trade embargo policy a matter of law in 1996 with the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which also imposed additional sanctions on Cuba.

The act came after the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes in international airspace, killing four people in February of that year.

In 2001, seven Cubans were convicted of conspiring to infiltrate the U.S. military’s Southern Command, and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst confessed in March to spying for Cuba for 16 years, according to a July letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to Democratic Rep. David Obey, of Wisconsin.

According to the State Department, the George W. Bush administration’s policy is to support the Cuban people without supporting Castro’s government.

The policy includes increasing direct flights to the island, attempting to establish direct mail service, continuing the U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions, providing scholarships for children of Cuban dissidents and opposing Cuban membership in the Organization of American States or Summit of the Americas.

“It’s a policy anachronism,” Samuels said. “It’s the only country where our Cold War policy has survived the end of the Cold War.”

Rodriguez said U.S. policy caused officials to reject Cuba’s offers of cooperation in stopping drug trafficking, curtailing illegal immigration, fighting terrorism and exchanging scientists, doctors and scholars.

“Many Americans cannot understand why they are banned from traveling to Cuba, the only country on which such a restriction exists,” Rodriguez said. “Many other Americans cannot understand why they cannot take advantage of the opportunities the Cuban economy provides.”

Samuels said the Bush administration would probably not change its stance soon, partly because Cuban-Americans – who largely oppose the Castro government – tend to vote Republican.

“The Cuba policy has been hostage to a minority of the Cuban-American community,” Rodriguez said.

Despite State Department objections, Gov. Jesse Ventura visited Cuba in late September, which Samuels said was of more symbolic than practical importance because it drew attention to the United States’ Cuba policy.

“It’s of symbolic importance because (Ventura’s) a media-savvy guy and people like to see what he’s doing,” Samuels said.

Samuels said he couldn’t predict what direction Cuba would take after Castro’s death.

“With any dictatorship, any analyst is kind of guessing what the future holds,” he said. “It’s hard enough in a democracy to predict.”

Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]