A few years ago, I read the landmark biography of Fidel Castro by New York Times reporter Tad Szulc. That by no means makes me a Castro or Cuba expert - but it does hammer home to even the casual reader that Castro's primary tool in holding onto power ha been his ability to pump up the threat of what he portrays as U.S. imperial ambitions and a supposedly corresponding threat to Cuban sovereignty. His basic line has been, "Keep me in power and the Revolution going so as to prevent the U.S. from invading, or exerting total control over Cuba." This manipulative message is nationalist to its core - he is saying that Cuba can only hold onto its distinct cultural, historic and economic roots if America is prevented from overrunning the country. Now, with news of Castro's illness and feverishg talk that his reign may finally be ending, the question of how to deal with and debunk his message becomes critical to whether we will see a democratic Cuba or not.
Let's be clear: Castro is a dictator who has used horrific acts to hold onto power, and a democratic Cuba is in the long-term interests of the Cuban people, the United States and the world - that is not up for debate. But whether you agree with Castro's fundamental nationalist message about U.S. imperial ambitions or not, it's clear that he has been effective in using it to keep power. And thus, that begs a very important question: why is the Bush administration walking right into his trap?
Open today's New York Times, and you will see that the Bush administration is now publicly bragging that once Castro dies, America is planning for a full-on take over of Cuba. In one story, we find out that "Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, made it clear on Tuesday that the United States would take an active role in shaping events on the island if the Cuban leader dies." That is the kind of declaration easily interpreted/spun by anti-democratic forces in Cuba as no-holds-barred diplomat-ese for the very imperialism Castro has been warning his people about for the last half century.
In another story, we discover that the administration is now announcing that if Castro dies, "the United States would also send special monitors and advisers to Cuba in the weeks after a full transition began." In the wake of the Vietnam War, which infamously started out with U.S. military "advisers," again - this is clearly fodder that could be easily spun to confirm Castro's own message. And it is especially stupid and destructive to our long-term goals/credibitlity when, at the same time our government is haughtily strutting around making these proclamations, the White House is also saying "it viewed attempts by Venezuela or other countries to influence the transition in Cuba as unwarranted intervention."
In political campaigns, the worst thing a candidate can do is publicly walk into their own stereotype. If, for instance, there are unconfirmed rumors out there that a candidate is a philanderer and is too-slick by half, the worst thing that candidate can do is get caught philandering and then lying about it, because it confirms the negative suspicions the public may have already had. If there are suspicions out there that a candidate waffles or stands for nothing, the worst thing that candidate can do is publicly waffle on a big issue (think John Kerry's "I was for it before I was against it" line on Iraq).
The same thing goes in the situation with Cuba. The stupidest thing American officials can do is publicly walk into Castro's portrayal of our ambitions. By doing that, we are confirming the negative suspicions that many Cubans must have, considering they've been hearing about it over and over and over again for the last 50 years.
Here's the thing - obviously, it is in America's interest to see a truly democratic Cuba, and our government should support that wholeheartedly. But there's a way to do support Cuba's transition to democracy that doesn't VERY PUBLICLY walk into Castro's caricature, and that actually respects the will of the Cuban people, instead of attempting to impose whatever will we have on them. As Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) said earlier this week, "Should Fidel Castro ultimately be unable to continue to lead Cuba, we must leave the transition to the Cubans… The Cubans themselves must make decisions about their future, free of threats and intervention from abroad."
Right now, the Bush administration is bragging about its efforts to make sure the opposite happen, and in doing so, the White House is PUBLICLY walking into Castro's own well-honed message, showing just how utterly arrogant and incompetent the people running our country really are. Our government is quite literally giving Castro (if he survives) and those around him fodder to say: "See, we told you so, so keep us in power, because we have been right." Put another way, the administration's arrogance could very well imperil a transition to democracy in Cuba, because it is very publicly giving anti-democratic forces in Cuba a rhetorical weapon to hang onto power.
As I've written before - Iraq has shown that the definition of "strength" when it comes to national security is not being a politician sitting in a comfortable air-conditioned Washington office and flippantly putting American troops in danger by calling in airstrikes or invasions half way around the globe. Similarly, the situation in Cuba should remind us that "strength" is not a politician puffing out his chest and pigheadedly walking into the very caricatures our enemies have been peddling, so as to potentially alienate indigenous populations that may have otherwise been sympathetic to our goals. That's what's called "weakness" - and the more such weakness is peddled as "strength" by politicians and the media elite, the worse off America will be.