World

The chances of change

In Cuba and Washington, attitudes slowly shift

ANDREW PHILLIPS May 4 1998
World

The chances of change

In Cuba and Washington, attitudes slowly shift

ANDREW PHILLIPS May 4 1998

The chances of change

World

In Cuba and Washington, attitudes slowly shift

ANDREW PHILLIPS

It was, as Sherlock Holmes might have put it, the case of the dog that did not bark. Issac Delgado, one of Cuba's most popular singers, played Miami Beach last week, and what happened was . . . nothing. Twelve

hundred fans turned out to cheer him on. But no one picketed the event, and no one threw eggs-as they did when another Cuban artist tried to perform in Miami two years ago. Cuban-American groups that once regarded anyone from Cuba as an emissary of the cursed Fidel Castro did not bother to protest Delgado's visit.

It was a concert like any other—which in itself was remarkable for Miami, where hardline Cuban exile groups have long held sway. Hugo Cando, the Cuban-born producer who brought

Delgado’s salsa band to town, was elated. “We made history,” he said.

Perhaps not history. But it was a sign that even at the epicentre of anti-Castro sentiment in the United States, attitudes are beginning to soften. A new generation of Cuban-Americans is rethinking how it should deal with its homeland, while the community’s leadership is divided as never before. To be sure, Washington holds tight to its 38year-old embargo against Cuba. But in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island in January, cracks are appearing in U.S. policy.

The Clinton administration has eased sanctions and American business has stepped up its pressure to get into the Cuban market. Internationally, the United States is more isolated than ever. Just last week, the UN Commission on Human Rights voted down a U.S.-sponsored resolution to condemn Cuba’s record in that area. Castro’s foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, triumphantly hailed the vote as a sign that “if we unite against the powerful, we can claim justice.”

Inside Cuba itself, however, change is not so apparent. The Pope’s visit may have given the Castro government more respectability abroad, but independent monitoring groups say the human rights situation has, if anything, worsened. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had to weigh those conflicting pressures as he prepared for his two-day visit to Havana this week—the first by a Canadian leader

since Pierre Trudeau made a show of tweaking the Americans by journeying there to meet Castro in 1976. Chrétiens plans called for him to spend less than two days in Cuba: time to officially open a new terminal at Havana airport built with the help of a Canadian company, and to meet twice with Castro. The question for Canadian officials was whether it was wise to reward Cuba’s government with a top-level visit when it shows no sign of increasing political freedom.

The answer was: on balance, yes. In an interview with Maclean’s, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy pointed to the Pope’s visit and to calls at the recent Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, to include Cuba in future meetings as reasons for Canada to continue reaching out to the Castro regime. “It was clear in Santiago there’s a real need to break down the isolation,” he said. “And because we’ve already started that, because we’ve got the reputation for being the good gringo, that bridgebuilding means the time has come.”

Chrétien, in fact, made the opening move in August, 1996, when he placed a personal phone call to Castro, then sent his senior foreign policy advisor, Jim Bartleman, to Havana for talks with the Cuban leader. The Prime Minister seriously considered going to Havana himself in January, 1997, when Canada and Cuba worked out a 14point accord that included co-operation in such areas as justice and human rights. Instead, Axworthy made that trip, and now acknowledges that the gains from the agreement have been at best modest. “It’s given us a base, we’re building on it, and we’ll evaluate it as we go,” he said.

And even as they decided that the time was right for the Prime Minister to visit, Canadian officials were privately frank about the nature of Castro’s regime. Since the Pope appealed for the release of prisoners in January, Havana has freed about 80 people held on political charges— including 14 who were allowed to travel to Canada. But several hundred more remain in jail, and the government has re-arrested some who were freed in the afterglow of John Paul’s visit. Cuba’s government shows no sign of breaking its habit of cracking down on even the smallest eruption of dissent. “They have almost Pavlovian instincts on this stuff,” said one senior official in Ottawa.

All of that fed the latest episode along the timeworn triangle between Ottawa, Havana and Washington. The harshest American critics of Canadian policy towards Cuba, not surprisingly, jumped to condemn Chrétiens visit. “It’s appalling,” said Marc Thiessen, spokesman for Jesse Helms, the Republican senator who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee and was principal author of the Helms-Burton law that penalizes some foreign companies doing business in Cuba. “It’s rewarding Fidel Castro for doing absolutely nothing.” Some U.S. Cubawatchers speculated that Canada might even suffer as a result of the visit. Richard Nuccio, a onetime special adviser on Cuba to President Bill Clinton, said Congress might be prompted to take away the President’s power to waive some of the harsher provisions of HelmsBurton. But Thiessen said that is unlikely. “This visit is a sideshow,” he said dismissively. “Congress wouldn’t dignify it with any action.”

Significantly, even independent groups that oppose the U.S. embargo were skeptical of Chrétien’s foray to Havana. Sarah DeCosse, Cuba researcher with Human Rights Watch in Washington, spent five days in Toronto talking to the 14 Cubans who were released in March and allowed to leave for Canada. She concluded that conditions in Cuba’s prisons have worsened, with inmates denied access to priests and kept for as long as five years in solitary confinement. DeCosse suggested Canada could press Cuban

authorities to get rid of catchall offences such as “contempt” and “dangerousness,” which are often used against critics of the government. “As a leading foreign investor in Cuba,” she said, “Canada really could exercise more leverage.”

But such is the moral power of the Pope that his visit prompted important changes in U.S. actions even without corresponding concessions by Havana. In fact, it was Helms himself and the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation who first proposed a modest relaxation in sanctions only days after John Paul left Cuba. They suggested allowing additional shipments of American food and medicine to Cuba, as long as they went to independent groups like the Catholic Church and not to the government. Clinton coopted their suggestions in late March, and added some measures of his own. For the first time since 1994, Washington will allow Cuban-Americans to send up to $1,700 a year to relatives in Cuba. And humanitarian groups will be allowed to charter direct flights to Cuba from the United States.

Those measures do not affect the embargo itself or Helms-Burton, which has discouraged foreign investment by punishing foreign companies that invest in Cuban property owned by American firms before Castro’s communist revolution. But they are a sign of changing views at the top, and that has forced the 1.5-million-member CubanAmerican community to rethink its approach. Even before the Pope’s visit, it was reeling from the death last November of Jorge Mas Canosa, the Miami businessman who launched the antiCastro foundation in 1981 and turned it into a powerful lobby group that virtually dictated American policy towards Cuba. Since Mas died, rival figures have been struggling for supremacy. So far, the three Cuban-American members of Congress from south Florida appear to be emerging as the new leaders.

More importantly, attitudes are changing fast among ordinary Cuban-Americans, especially the young. One turning point came last fall when singer Gloria Estefan, an icon for Cubans in the United States, spoke out. All Estefan did was write a letter to The Miam i Herald, defending a member of a local arts commission who had suggested that Cuban artists be allowed to perform in Florida. The reaction was furious: Estefan was denounced on Miami’s Cuban radio stations by callers who questioned her patriotism and threatened to burn her CDs.

Immediately afterwards, though, came a backlash against her critics. Herald columnist Liz Balmaseda wrote that it “was the beginning of something truly significant in Cuban Miami, a blatant generational shift” from older exiles who fled Castro’s revolution nearly 40 years ago to younger people with more flexible ideas. “There have always been 40 to 50 per cent of the people who wanted a softer line towards Cuba,” said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University in Miami who studies CubanAmerican attitudes. “Now, those folks are talking more openly about it.” After almost four decades of hostility, however, change is painfully slow—in Miami, in Washington and, as Chrétien was likely to And, in Havana.

With BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa