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ADVICE TO CUBAN DISSIDENTS: Beware U.S. Senators Bearing Gifts


Monday, Jun. 25, 2001

As part of his latest misconceived effort to undermine the Cuban government, Senator Jesse Helms last month unveiled plans to allocate up to $100 million over four years to assist dissidents, opposition groups, political prisoners and other non-governmental voices in Cuba.

The Helms bill, jointly sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman, would authorize the Bush administration to supply Cuban beneficiaries with food, medicine, educational materials, office equipment, telephones and faxes, as well as "other financial assistance" — that is, cash.

Defenders of U.S. policy toward Cuba like to hearken back to successful precedents in which international pressure and concern have facilitated undeniable advances in human rights. When the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is criticized, for example, they reflexively refer back to the South African experience with apartheid.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the present legislation, called the Cuban Solidarity Act of 2001, is self-consciously modeled after aid provided to the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s. But whether or not American-supplied fax machines helped hasten the downfall of Poland's Communist government — thereby promoting the "liberty and economic opportunity" of the Polish people (as the present bill purports to do for Cubans) — U.S. funding is unlikely to have a similar impact in Cuba.

In fact, rather than aiding the Cuban opposition, U.S. financial assistance would almost certainly have the opposite effect. By branding dissidents and opposition figures as paid agents of the U.S. government, the aid would go far toward damaging their credibility and discrediting their views.

American Intervention and Cuban Nationalism

So if Cuba is Poland from the perspective of the present legislation, which country represents the Soviet Union? The question helps suggest why such comparisons are so far off the mark.

The leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement were nationalists who fought Soviet domination. Yet in Cuba, as in much of Latin America, it is the United States that has historically played the role of the imperial power. American intervention in Cuba indelibly marked the island's political and economic development, a history of which Cubans are acutely aware.

President Fidel Castro has, from the beginning, been a skillful manipulator of Cuban nationalism, using it to garner both internal and external support for his rule. The image of Cuba as David and the United States as Goliath is hard to shake, particularly as U.S. policy toward Cuba fails to develop intelligently. Although the CIA may no longer try to booby-trap Castro's cigars, the U.S. embargo on Cuba is still widely viewed as rigid, bullying, and anachronistic.

Indeed, it is a sad reflection on his prominence in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Helms, in particular, appears so deaf to the views of the rest of the world. Last November, for the ninth straight year, U.N. member states voted to condemn the embargo, this time by a record margin of 167 to 3. The resolution was especially critical of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a previous Helms initiative that tightened the embargo.

Independent of Whom?

The embargo, like the American hostility it represents, gives the Cuban government a ready excuse for the country's economic and political problems. Using much the same reasoning, Castro also routinely dismisses Cuban dissidents as mouthpieces for U.S. interests. Rather than recognizing the possibility of legitimate internal dissent, he attacks the credibility and integrity of those who oppose him.

Unfortunately, the present draft legislation seems designed to justify his assessment. The legislation defines "independent" organizations eligible for assistance as those that are not "agenc[ies] or instrumentalit[ies] of the Cuban government." But how will such organizations maintain their claims to independence if they receive U.S. funding?

This question can even now be posed. Since 1996, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has expended several million dollars via its Cuba Program, some of which has supported democracy activists, as well as political prisoners and their families.

Some of the potential beneficiaries of Helms' proposed legislation, including prominent dissident Elizardo Sánchez, have already criticized the idea. Knowing that their independence and legitimacy are more valuable than any amount of material support, the dissidents believe that the draft legislation would do a disservice to the people and groups it purports to assist.

Benevolent Neglect

Back in 1996 I attended a State Department conference on strengthening human rights groups in Cuba. It struck me at the time that a policy of benevolent neglect might do more good than most of the ideas under discussion.

Unless the U.S. government is truly open to considering new approaches to Cuba, that pessimistic judgment may still hold true.

Joanne Mariner, a FindLaw columnist, is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

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