George Bush and Fidel Castro finally have one thing in common: both are making plans for the future of the Cuban people. But, as we've seen, transitions dreamed up and imposed by Washington without local consultation don't always pan out. And people who have suffered from U.S.-imposed sanctions aren't always eager to follow our lead.
In the run-up to our 2004 election, George Bush got excited about accelerating Fidel's departure from power. He tightened economic sanctions. And he created an inter-agency group, The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, charged with hastening Cuba's transition to democracy and recommending new economic and civic arrangements for Cuba that would mirror ours in the United States.
Of course, President Bush forgot to ask actual Cubans how they would like to move to a more open society. So, I thought we should. With the 2006 commission days away from giving Bush a second report, containing new ideas for squeezing Cuba, I traveled to visit the "squeezed," to ask average Cubans how they liked the first plan and to gauge the impact of our broader policy on Cuba's government and society.
The message I took from this trip was loud, clear and entirely understandable: Cubans don't the Bush plan, the policy can't work; and the administration's arrogance puts our nation squarely on the wrong side of the debate now raging in the region about who will determine Latin America's future.
We did pull-aside interviews with Cubans in Havana and in nearby Pogolotti, a working class neighborhood. We got a number of Cubans to speak candidly to us about their sense of deprivation, and their desire for a better life. Cubans are dissatisfied with their economic circumstances. They do not solely condemn the United States or hold their own government harmless.
But Cubans of every political stripe oppose restrictions that hurt them economically and, without fail, they resent Washington's effort to manage the Cuban transition as an assault on their nation's sovereignty.
One Pogolotti resident succinctly summed up Cuba's attitude towards the Administration and its current policies: "who asked Mr. Bush to interfere in our lives? We do with our own lives what we want. Nobody from the outside has the right to interfere with our business."
As one woman said of President Bush, "he should be more intelligent and have a softer heart. We want peace in Cuba. We should have better relations, and not make things worse."
Another came out of her home in Old Havana to tell us: "The restrictions are a bad thing because they affect Cubans who really have needs. There should be some agreements between the two governments, but both countries are too stubborn to agree on anything. In the end, it is the common people who are affected."
As a practical matter, Cubans just can't understand why a United States that claims to want them prosperous and free would stop their families from visiting them in Cuba or from sending them money to buy medicine or bread.
The Cuban government exploits this resentment by attacking el Plan Bush and asking with billboards, brochures, and television programming what else the United States intends to take away.
But el Plan Bush is doomed not by Castro, but by our own inability to join the rest of the world in putting the Cold War behind us. Try as we might to tighten the economic noose with our embargo, trade and cash from around the world continue to flow freely in and out of Cuba.
Foreign tourism on the island is growing. Cuba has access to cheap credit courtesy of China. Cuba is not paying $70+ for imported oil; 80,000 plus barrels of subsidized oil comes from Venezuela every day. And Cuba is getting cash in return for the services of the doctors, sports trainers, and others they've sent to Caracas and beyond.
They are taking this money and making long-overdue investments in the island's transport system and electrical grid. While much of the world trades with Cuba, travels to Cuba, and has diplomatic relations with Cuba, our sanctions isolate us. They are not harming Cuba's government, they are not helping Cuba's people...and they are not positioning us to influence Latin America's future.
My stay in Cuba coincided with the summit held by the Presidents of Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, where they signed the ALBA trade and integration agreement, designed to resist the economic influence of the United States in Latin America. I attended a public event where Castro was feted by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, two regional leaders who will carry Castro's message and his ideas into well into the 21st century.
With the leaders on the podium, and a cheering audience in the Plaza of the Revolution before him, Castro was literally surrounded by his future. While Washington's transition commission plans a future for Cubans that even its intended beneficiaries disdain and reject, Castro is creating a foreign policy that will leave an imprint in Latin America for generations. He is presiding over a recovering economy even as he centralizes more power and planning authority within the government. His transition plan is visible and in place; at home and abroad, he has a legacy that will outlast his remaining time in office.
The shame of it is that we could offer a lot more to Cuba and Latin America than stale sanctions based on Cold War nostalgia. Americans could be traveling to Cuba with their ideas and powerful idealism. We could be competing not only for Cuba's business but for the aspirations of its people. We could be signaling the entire region that we are genuinely hearing their concerns about us. If only we had something more to say.