Remaking U.S.-Cuba Policy

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

'The Cuban people are beginning to look beyond Fidel Castro. We must do the same," said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently, as she unveiled a modest package of measures to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

In other words, someday and possibly soon, Mother Nature will succeed where Uncle Sam has failed, and remove Castro from office.

That realization that the Castro era is slowly moving to an end is increasingly shaping perceptions in Havana, Miami and Washington. Albright's decision to lift the additional sanctions laid on after Cuba shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 was the first sign of a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. It won't be the last: The balance of power in U.S. politics continues to shift away from Cuban American hard-liners, and that shift will only accelerate as the end of the Castro era draws inevitably closer.

The most important development reshaping U.S. policy is unquestionably the increasingly passionate involvement of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II's visit was not a flash in the pan. The U.S. cardinals have made clear that they see the pope's visit as the first engagement of a long campaign, and they are determined to press for more change in U.S. policy. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, for example, is calling for a bipartisan presidential commission to recommend changes in U.S. policy and urges a rapid end to all restrictions on sales of food and medicine to the beleaguered island. He praises Castro for honoring all the commitments he made to the pope and the church and urges Washington to work with Castro to improve the lives of the people in Cuba.

One likely effect of the church's involvement will be to spread awareness in the United States that most Cuban dissidents on the island--presumably the people U.S. policy aims to support--want an immediate end to the U.S. embargo. In public and in private, Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega called on Washington to end the embargo long before John Paul visited the island. Elizardo Sanchez, president of the largest and most influential of Cuba's handful of opposition groups, goes even farther, urging the United States to drop its hostility to Castro as the best means of promoting the national dialogue and reconciliation that Sanchez believes will lead to reform. The more widely these views of the Cuban bishops and dissidents are known, the harder it is to make a case for current U.S. policy.

The church's involvement is accelerating another important U.S. trend: the erosion of conservative support for U.S. Cuba policy. The National Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times all have editorialized against the current U.S. policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is lobbying aggressively in favor of sales of food and medicine to Cuba. Former GOP Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a man with impeccable conservative credentials, is lobbying his former colleagues to support the same measure.

The decline of broad conservative support for the embargo leaves Miami's hard-liners almost alone in supporting this policy. That community, increasingly preoccupied with election scandals and corruption allegations in Miami and its surrounding county, will also feel the effect of sustained pressure by the Catholic Church.

Indeed, the biggest effect of the papal visit to Cuba may end up being its impact on Miami. For many conservative Miami exiles, it was precisely their loyalty to Catholic Christianity that caused them to flee the militant atheism of Castro's Cuba in the 1960s.

To have the pope and the U.S. bishops, including their own Archbishop John C. Favalora, condemning resistance, calling for national reconciliation among all Cubans and denouncing the embargo as contrary to Catholic teaching comes as a bitter blow. Miami critics of the hard-line policy, meanwhile, have become far more visible. About 200 Cuban Americans from the Miami area will be in Washington next month, lobbying Congress to end the embargo on food and medicine.

The pope's visit, and the sustained support by the U.S. hierarchy, also have emboldened the business lobby. Earlier this month, more than 50 U.S. businessmen traveled to Havana; 661 corporations have formed USA Engage, which opposes U.S. unilateral sanctions, generally, and, specifically, is working to change congressional minds about the embargo.

With all this pressure building up for change, the steps Albright announced last week may seem small, but they were extremely well-planned. The resumption of direct flights and the renewed permission for Cuban Americans to send up to $1,200 a year to relatives on the island will provide a significant boost to the Cuban economy. It is the kind of step that once would have enraged Miami's leadership, but, this time, their protests had little impact. Cuban American political leaders might have been protesting, but ordinary Cuban Americans were trying to book flights and wiring money to Auntie Rosa back in Havana.

The announced changes are the beginning, not the end, of the administration's cautious new policy on Cuba. Albright has pledged that the administration will work with Congress to facilitate a further easing of the embargo on food and medicine. That could be difficult. Though 10 Republican senators are co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo on sales of food and medicine, a strong phalanx of opposition to real policy change still exists and, especially in the Senate where 40 determined senators can filibuster a bill to death, prospects could be dicey.

Congress, however, may not hold as many cards as it thinks. Since Helms-Burton passed in 1996, the common assumption has been that only Congress can make major changes to the embargo. As Cardinal Law points out, that may not be true. Some legal observers believe that when Helms-Burton codified the embargo in 1996, it left intact the president's power, under the then-existing regulations, to license any transactions he deems in the national interest. In other words, if the administration concluded that trade with Cuba was in the national interest, it could simply license trade in a wide variety of products.

If so, then Helms-Burton, a bill widely criticized for sloppy draftsmanship, may have failed in its central purpose: to keep the president from dropping the embargo without congressional assent. Given the current climate in politics, it would be impossible to get a new bill through to tighten Helms-Burton further. Indeed, all the talk today is about how to loosen sanctions on Cuba, a sign of how far Washington has moved since 1996.

There is one more loose cannon on deck. As President Bill Clinton gets closer to the end of his term, he will be looking hard for landmark accomplishments to build a historical legacy. Liquidating the embarrassing fiasco of U.S. policy on Cuba is the kind of accomplishment historians give points for. As the political risks of changing Cuba policy diminish, Clinton is likely to see progress on normalization of relations as an increasingly attractive opportunity.

At this point, there may be only one man who can slow down the improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations. That man is Castro, whose government justifies its repression of critics because of the necessity to unite the country against Yanqui hostility, and who probably does not want torrents of U.S. foreign investment and millions of U.S. tourists pouring into his socialist state. But, as Castro, now at his biblical threescore and 10, reflects on the perilous state of the Cuban economy, he, too, may feel that ending his 40-year quarrel with Washington would be a fitting capstone to his extraordinary career.

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