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Ban undercuts our influence on Cuba
The Dallas Morning News
May 18, 2003
by Philip Peters

In many meetings in Havana over the past two years, I have come to know and admire the top activists in Cuba's fledgling democratic opposition - people who struggle to be heard among Cubans, and who warmly greet Americans' visits as "gestures of solidarity."

Hector Palacios is a font of economic and social data. He carries a set of 36 ideas for economic and political reform that the opposition wants to present to the government.

Oswaldo Alfonso jokes that if Washington drops its embargo, the headline in Cuba's Communist Party newspaper would be, "ANOTHER ACT OF YANKEE AGGRESSION" - yet he wants sanctions to remain because to lift them would "give oxygen to Castro."

Most of his colleagues disagree. "We do not seek isolation nor do we ask others to isolate Cuba," says Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Varela Project, a pro-reform petition. Last month, both Paya and Cuba's Catholic church restated their opposition to the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

The travel issue always prompts former diplomat Oscar Espinosa Chepe to explain how trade and travel have changed Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam. Touting the value of engagement, he sounds like President Bush - until he applies his argument to Cuba.

When allowed a word in edgewise, Gisela Delgado, wife of Mr. Palacios, describes her one-room library that overflows with books that Cubans can borrow free of charge. Over coffee in that room March 10, Delgado told Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and me of her satisfaction that so many Cubans feel comfortable visiting and borrowing her books.

The library was raided March 20 by state security agents, its contents were hauled away, and Mr. Palacios was arrested. Seventy-five nonviolent activists were given summary trials. For allegedly conspiring against the Cuban state, Mr. Palacios was sentenced to 25 years, Mr. Espinosa Chepe to 20, Mr. Alfonso to 18.

This crackdown left Cuba's opposition "practically paralyzed," according to Vladimiro Roca, one of the few dissident leaders not jailed.

Cuban officials say the jailings respond to foreign provocation - the stepped-up support and contacts provided to the dissidents by James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana. The trials dwelled on the provision of materials and cash from U.S.-funded organizations.

Finally, the crackdown showed that the Bush Administration had blundered into the arms of Cuban state security. The trials uncovered 12 Cuban agents who posed as leading dissidents and apparently played the U.S. interests section like a violin.

Nestor Baguer, an agent posing as an independent journalist, held a special pass to the U.S. mission. When Mr. Cason offered the use of his home for dissident meetings, another government agent, Manuel David Orrio, organized an independent journalists' seminar that was used in evidence against those who attended. The top aide to a leading dissident, Martha Beatriz Roque, was yet another Cuban agent.

Amid this wreckage, the Administration is pondering its next steps.

Miami hard-liners want the President to get tough, and on Tuesday the State Department expelled 14 Cuban diplomats.

The Administration should rethink its posture toward Cuba's dissidents. American diplomats are not to blame for the arrests, and there is nothing wrong with providing information or holding meetings with political activists.

But in the context of a U.S. policy that seeks a "transition" in Cuba - a de facto regime change - Washington's open embrace played into Cuba's perennial accusation that the dissidents are U.S. agents. For the dissidents' sake, it's fair to ask whether they would be better served by a different approach.

The President should also heed growing Congressional calls to change direction in Cuba policy by encouraging, rather than limiting, American contact with Cubans.

Thirteen Senators and 55 Representatives have introduced legislation to give Americans complete freedom to travel to Cuba and to meet Cubans as they see fit.

An unregulated flood of American visitors might disappoint Cuba's intelligence agents and Washington's hyperactive travel regulators. But America's long-term interest will be served if we unleash our greatest source of influence - our free people - on a place that, now more than ever, sorely needs it.

Philip Peters, a State Department official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute.