2009-04-27. The Latell Report, April 2009
Dr. Brian Latell*
(www.miscelaneasdecuba.net).- Like six American presidents before him,
Democrats and Republicans, Barack Obama has sought to improve relations
with Fidel Castro's Cuba.
In warm and conciliatory language during the recent summit of the
Americas in Trinidad and Tobago the president, and Secretary of State
Clinton, dramatized their desire to begin a bilateral process of
rapprochement with Havana.
Their hopes were elevated because since assuming Cuba's presidency early
last year Raul Castro has repeatedly signaled interest in a constructive
dialogue. But within days of the American overtures, Fidel Castro,
Cuba's ex-president and still presiding potentate, all but conclusively
In two lengthy commentaries disseminated by Cuba's media this week, the
elder Castro was scornful and abusive. He described president Obama as
"looking conceited" in Trinidad. Quoting extensively from Nicaraguan
president Daniel Ortega's fifty minute anti-American jeremiad in
Port-of-Spain, Castro echoed the theme that it is the United States, not
Cuba, that must change.
He gave no ground whatever, intimating that, as far as he is concerned,
Cuba can wait another four or eight years until after President Obama
leaves office without progress in alleviating bilateral tensions.
Castro's intransigence is scarcely any different than it has been since
the first months of his revolutionary regime. Dwight Eisenhower was the
first American president to deal with him, and the first earnestly to
seek a constructive relationship. He dispatched Philip Bonsal, a veteran
diplomat, fluent in Spanish and sympathetic to many of the Cuban
revolution's initial objectives, as ambassador. But Bonsal was shunned
by Fidel. In his memoirs he concluded that "as long as Castro remains in
power there will be no change: (he) needs the United States as a
whipping boy and relentless enemy."
In the fall of 1963 John Kennedy entered into exploratory diplomatic
contacts with Cuba, long after the embassy on Havana's Malecon had been
shuttered. Those contacts expired following the assassination in Dallas,
but undoubtedly were doomed to fail for the same reasons that Bonsal
came to appreciate.
Later, before his resignation in 1974, Richard Nixon authorized
high-level diplomatic contacts with Cuba. They were undertaken by his
successor Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975.
And again, soon after his inauguration in 1977, Jimmy Carter launched a
similar effort. The three presidents and their advisers believed
erroneously that Castro would see critical advantages in reducing
bilateral tensions and that he would be willing to make important
concessions toward that end.
Those efforts foundered, however, when it became clear that Castro
placed a higher priority on supporting revolutionary internationalism in
Africa, and on retaining the American enemy to berate, than on achieving
Bill Clinton's White House tried yet again, exploring means of improving
relations behind the scenes and through intermediaries. He was deterred
too, when in February 1996 Cuban MIG fighters shot down civilian
aircraft over international waters, killing American civilians. The
fallout for Fidel was enactment of the tough Helms-Burton legislation
that had been languishing in Congress, but that only provided yet more
"anti-imperialist" ammunition for the Cuban propaganda machine.
The latest effort, undertaken by President Obama with considerable
fanfare and the best of intentions is possibly the most ambitious of all
seven of these presidential efforts to reduce or end the deadlock in
relations with Cuba. But it appears that it is already suffering the
same fate as all of the earlier attempts.
This time, however, Castro has new and compelling reasons for rejecting
virtually all compromise with Washington. He is in a triumphant,
unyielding mood. Believing that the correlation of international forces
--a term revived from classic Marxist lexicon-- is working
overwhelmingly in Cuba's favor, he feels no need to compromise. With
just a little more patience, perhaps even in his lifetime, Cuba, he
believes, can win most of its goals in the stand-off with Washington
through unilateral concessions.
And as usual, his calculus is derived from convincing evidence. Cuba's
legitimacy with governments in this hemisphere has never been higher.
Soon every country except the United States will have full diplomatic
relations with Havana. A rump group of presidents led and fueled by
Venezuelan President Chavez have raised the volume and intensity of
pro-Castro and anti-American rhetoric to unprecedented levels. President
Obama endured insulting public doses of it in Trinidad from both Chavez
Castro's new world view has been reinforced by many other fawning
regional leaders. Following the Rio Summit late last year, with Cuba for
the first time participating as a full member, ten Latin American and
Caribbean presidents and prime ministers have paid their respects to one
or both Castro brothers in Havana. So did an important American
congressional delegation. None of those visitors bothered to meet with,
or even to acknowledge the suffering of Cuban human rights and
Regional demands for the end of the U.S. economic embargo, readmission
of Cuba to the OAS, and an end to the years of hostility have become
deafening. Innumerable calls have also been heard from leading members
of Congress, influential Washington think tanks, and commentators of
many stripes who argue that the time finally has come for the impasse
with Cuba to end. From Castro's perspective at least, unilateral
concessions by Washington, such as lifting the travel ban or all of the
embargo, now seem within the realm of the possible. With so much now
converging in Cuba's and his favor, Fidel sees no need to make
But his rejection of the most promising American overtures ever offered
is likely to generate severe tensions within the Cuban leadership.
Fidel's intransigence will be unsettling to the many civilian and
military leaders who genuinely had hoped for a better relationship with
Washington. Most had come to believe that Raúl Castro, Cuba's president
after all, was intent on moving in that direction.
But Fidel's snide commentary published on April 21 chastens and
humiliates his brother. Now issuing almost one of these reflections
daily, there can be no doubt that it is the infirm, cosseted,
all-but-invisible Fidel, angry but triumphant, who is again the ultimate
arbiter of Cuban foreign policy.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the
book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next
Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed
American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about
Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early
1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central
Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter
century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
The CTP, funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), can be contacted at P.O. Box 248174, Coral Gables,
Florida 33124-3010, Tel: 305-284-CUBA (2822), Fax: 305-284-4875, and by
email at email@example.com.
FIDEL'S INTRANSIGENCE - Misceláneas de Cuba (28 April 2009)