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05/09/03 - Dallas Morning News - Policy on Cuba may be tougher

U.S. sends mixed signals on whether it's taking 'pressure cooker' stance

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON Without fanfare, U.S. government efforts to promote political
change in Cuba have shifted away from the subtle people-to-people contacts
favored by the Clinton administration to a more confrontational approach,
including direct support for dissidents, two U.S. officials say.

One senior U.S. official called the new focus a pressure cooker


He and another official, a former diplomat, said that recent developments
in Cuba, including the crackdown on opponents of Fidel Castro's government,
the execution of three ferry hijackers, and a Cuban government threat to
close the U.S. Interests Section, were Cuba's reply to a significant shift
in U.S. Cuba policy. The two officials spoke separately and on condition of

Officials at the State Department, also speaking on condition of anonymity,
insisted that there has been no change in Cuba policy. They denied that the
U.S. government is fomenting unrest in Cuba, and called the recent
crackdown on Cuban dissidents a totalitarian government's harsh reaction to
growing internal dissatisfaction.

There is absolutely no change in policy, no change whatsoever,

said a senior State Department official. This administration will not

waver from its aggressive pursuit of the support of Cuban civil society.

There will be no stepping back. The question is how do we affirm where we
are now and the vision that the president has articulated in terms of
seeking a transition on the island.

The conflicting messages from U.S. officials are evidence of a contentious
debate within the U.S. government over Cuba, analysts


An internal policy review, aimed at updating Bush administration views on
Cuba, is under way and may be announced by May 20, officials said.

Those who say that the U.S. government has already adopted a harder line
cite several recent steps, including direct cash payments to individual
dissidents an allegation denied by the State Department; frequent and
direct criticism of the Cuban government by the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba,
James Cason; a sharp reduction in the number of U.S. visas issued to
Cubans; and new limitations on the people-to-people contacts. The Clinton
administration promoted these contacts between ordinary Americans and
Cubans as a way to promote democratic change and spread American ideals.

'Different paradigm'

The Bush administration has chosen a different paradigm from that of the
Clinton administration to accomplish the goal of bringing democratic
government to Cuba, the senior U.S. official said. There are two sets of
analysis and two sets of policies. Some people [in the Bush administration]
prefer the pressure cooker strategy.

Mr. Castro has launched the harshest crackdown on dissidents in decades,
with the arrests of at least 100.

After summary trials that drew international condemnation, 75 dissidents
were jailed some for as long as 28 years. Mr. Castro branded the activities
of the dissidents a U.S. provocation. In addition, Mr. Castro ordered the
execution of three people who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to reach the
United States.

These steps have squelched efforts by moderates in the United States to
promote closer trade and cultural ties with Cuba. As late as last fall,

American business people, farmers, politicians and others were streaming to
Cuba for trade shows, tours and conventions.

Castro's harsh actions have been a momentum stopper here, said

Stephen Johnson, a Latin America analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Our policy isn't very smart, said Phil Peters, a State Department official
in the first Bush administration and a veteran Cuba observer who's advising
members of Congress pushing for an easing of the 42-year-old trade embargo.
It's a policy that embraces Cuban dissidents too closely, is too much in
the face of Castro, and gets under the skin of too many Cubans.

Buoyed in part by victory in the war in Iraq, anti-Castro elements within
the Bush administration backed by hard-line Cuban exiles favor funneling
money to individual dissidents under Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton
law, the senior U.S. official said. The Clinton administration declined to
take such action.

The Bush administration, as is its prerogative, has agreed to do direct
cash payments, the senior official said. The Clinton logic was,

'We do not want these people to later have their homes raided by the police
and have a whole bunch of receipts and American cash hanging around because
then you'll be setting them off and later being paraded as agents of the
U.S. government'... which is what happened.

This [policy] shift cuts to the heart of national dignity for

Cubans, said the senior official. And it really helps the hand of

those in Cuba who say this is subversion, that this is really to overthrow
the government.

Cash receipts alleged

In the recent dissident trials, government infiltrators of dissident groups
produced what they said were cash receipts from U.S. officials.

A State Department official acknowledged that direct cash payments to
dissidents wasn't prohibited but said, We're not doing that.

Another U.S. official said allegations that the United States dispensed
cash to individual dissidents were patently untrue.

The State Department official acknowledged that money issued under U.S.
Agency for International Development grants and earmarked for Cuban
nongovernmental organizations, including dissident groups, had increased

In fact, the total amount in U.S. taxpayer grants earmarked for

Cuban nongovernmental organizations has doubled, from about $6 million
during the last four years of the Clinton administration to more than $14
million in the first years of the Bush administration, with an additional$7
million sought for next year, a State Department official said.

To be sure, U.S. support of dissidents within a totalitarian society is
consistent with a fundamental policy of promoting human rights

Throughout the world, officials said.

The chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Mr. Cason, has also been on a high-profile
campaign criticizing the Cuban government. On Feb. 24, the day Cubans mark
as the beginning of Cuba's war for independence from Spain, Mr. Cason met
with dissidents and questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Castro.

But a U.S. State Department official said the diplomat's actions weren't so
different from those of the head of the Cuban office in Washington,
Dagoberto Rodríguez.

Mr. Rodríguez regularly travels in the United States promoting economic and
cultural ties with Cuba and thereby undermining U.S. policy to Cuba, the
State Department official said.

But the senior U.S. official challenged the comparison, saying,

changing policy is one thing, overthrowing a government is


The U.S. government has been sharply limiting U.S. visas to Cubans. Undera

1994 immigration agreement, the U.S. government promised to issue at least

20,000 travel documents a year to Cuban nationals.

For the first five months of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1,

only 505 visas were issued, said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque.

That compares with 7,237 in 2002; 8,300 in 2001; and 10,860 in2000.

A senior State Department official said the U.S. government has the entire

year to issue the 20,000 visas and will meet that commitment.

'Too Cancún-like'

And a federal regulation announced in March virtually cut off the ability of

Americans to travel to Cuba legally to take part in trade and professional

exchanges. Over the weekend, the White House announced further restrictions

on educational exchanges, saying that the trips werebecoming too

Cancún-like, a U.S. official said.

The growing U.S.-Cuba animosity has resulted in unprecedented

Travel restrictions for some Cuban diplomats and their children, a Cuban
diplomat said. In one case, the daughter of a Cuban diplomat was denied a
trip to a zoo with her elementary school classmates. U.S. officials said
they had no knowledge of the incident.

Another U.S. official, the former diplomat, said that the endgame of some
Bush administration hard-liners is to create enough of a political and
economic turmoil on the island to help precipitate another mass exodus
across the Straits of Florida, possible armed conflict and ideally justify
some type of U.S. intervention aimed at ending the reign of the last
communist leader in the Western Hemisphere.

A State Department official called that scenario utterly ridiculous,

stuff of wild fantasies. The only migration this administration wants is a
safe, orderly and legal migration.

Staff writer Tracey Eaton in Havana contributed to this report


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