The wild party is already planned. CBS News has rented out a shop on Calle Ocho, the main drag in Little Havana, Miami, from which to anchor coverage of dancing in the streets. “No Fidel, No Problem”, say the bumper stickers. Not just Little Havana, but now the entire city of Miami is planning a great party and concert at the Orange Bowl stadium to celebrate Fidel Castro’s death. Tomás Regalado, the city’s commissioner, explains: “He represents everything bad that has happened to the people of Cuba for 48 years. There is something to celebrate.”
Fly a thousand miles back up north to Washington, however, and the mood is sober. Winds of change may be blowing through the new Democratic Congress, but I can find nobody in DC – in the Bush administration or Congress – who thinks that Fidel’s apparently imminent demise will suddenly transform Cuba itself or markedly change US policy towards Cuba. The CIA has, after all, been predicting Castro’s death from cancer since 1979.
I spoke, for example, to Jeff Flake, a highly influential 44-year-old Republican congressman from Arizona who has been to Cuba five times, and who in December led the biggest US congressional delegation – four Republicans and six Democrats – to Havana since 1959. Flake is an independent-minded Mormon unafraid to buck the party line. “What was striking, you know,” he told me, “was that [the Bush administration’s] policy has always been that as soon as Fidel goes, there’ll be riots in the streets, people demanding free and fair elections, and we’ll have a sea change.
“But anybody who’s spent any time in Cuba realises that’s not the case at all. That’s surprising to people here who believe the administration’s line. But there aren’t riots in the streets, and to all intents and purposes they [the Cubans] have made the transition.” The Bush administration, he says, “is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming” if its intransigence towards Cuba is to change. Flake and the Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel have just jointly introduced a bill to lift the “travel ban” – supposedly free Americans can still be sent to prison for travelling to Cuba unless they fit into specific categories and are granted government permission – but that, so far, is the most revolutionary change on the books.
Raú Castro has twice asked Washington for talks since he took over from his brother Fidel last July, but the hubristic Bush refrain has been all too familiar and potentially no less catastrophic than it has been elsewhere in the world: we do not talk to evil men. After Fidel stepped down, Bush described Cuba as an “outpost of tyranny”, while John Bolton, his late and unlamented ambassador to the UN, called it the region’s own “axis of evil”. The White House says simply that it “sees no point” in holding negotiations with a “dictator-in-waiting” such as Raú.
Indeed, the state department dashed all hopes of progress when it said not only that “the US will not accept a succession scenario”, but that “there will not be a succession”. Tell that to 11.3 million Cubans.
Even many of the 1.5 million Cuban Americans (who live mainly in Florida and New Jersey) are dismayed by the prospect of the continuing isolation between their two homelands. Regardless of those plans for a high-jinks party in Miami, many of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who poured in to Little Havana between 1959 and 1962 have now died and successive US-born generations of Cuban Americans are (contrary to long-standing myth) much less fanatical and obsessive. None the less, Cubans are still granted the unique privilege of being given automatic asylum, in effect, should they make the 90-mile journey to Florida.
Yet if George W Bush is to blame for such a hopeless impasse, so are the eight previous US presidents whom Castro has successfully defied. Ike ordered the CIA to destabilise Cuba when Fidel came to power in 1959, stopped buying Cuban sugar and ordered an embargo on selling oil to Cuba. As US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson tried to persuade JFK to ameliorate relations with Fidel by giving the Cubans back the naval base in eastern Cuba that the US insisted on occupying. It was called Guantanamo.
Instead, JFK tried to demonstrate his manhood by ordering the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, and since then US-Cuban economic and political relations have been virtually non-existent, the US always assuming that its combined policies of drastic economic embargoes, political isolationism and ongoing CIA attempts to foment insurgency would bring Castro down. Castro survived at least eight assassination attempts by the CIA or its agents between 1960 and 1965 alone, according to a US Senate intelligence committee report. They included such tragicomic efforts as putting explosives in his cigars and giving him a diving suit lined with carcinogenic materials.
Clinton also pandered to the Cuban-American vote in his 1992 election campaign by saying that the US “must bring the hammer down” on Cuba. That same year, Congress passed the Cub an Democracy Act, which tightened restrictions on trade and travel. It was followed, four years later, by the even more swingeing Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, aka the Helms-Burton Act, after its authors, the late Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton (who is about to announce his candidacy for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination). This, among many other things, made it illegal under US law for foreign countries to trade with Cuba or for a US administration even to recognise a transitional government from Fidel to Raú.
Which brings us to 2007, a boneheaded administration in place until 2009, and a Senate and House with small Democratic majorities that are not enough to overturn presidential vetoes. If Congress attempted to abolish the Helms-Burton Act, for example, it would be stymied by a presidential veto. “The chances of getting any major legislative changes [over Cuba] emanating from the Congress that the president will accept are slim,” said a senior adviser to a Democratic congressman who asked not to be identified. “But we control the agenda in terms of hearings, and that way we can raise the profile of discussion.”
Thus, Congressman Bill Delahunt, the Democrat head of the oversight panel of the House foreign affairs committee, has already said that he will hold hearings on aid to Cuba. Rangel and Flake intend to persevere with reversing the travel ban and, in the Senate, Max Baucus and Joe Biden (the new chairs of the finance and foreign relations committees) plan high-profile hearings on Cuba.
To which, naturally, the Bush administration will remain adamantly deaf. In 2003, Dubbya set up the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba”, the purpose of which (according to none other than Condoleezza Rice) was “to hasten the end of the dictatorship”. It introduced yet more severe restrictions, making it illegal to send even clothing or soap to Cuba from the US.
Last year, the commission issued a 93-page report, some of which was redacted; its principal recommendation was that the US spend a further $80m to overthrow the Castros. The classified section is presumed to contain details of US military plans to invade Cuba (or even, yet again, to assassinate one or the other, or both, of the Castros). Fidel dismissed members of the commission as “shit-eaters who do not deserve the world’s respect”.
In addition, $35m of US tax dollars is still known to be budgeted annually for what is known as “democracy promotion” (in other words, destabilisation) in Cuba, although the isolationism has meant that US intelligence from inside Cuba is very low-grade indeed. The US has funded the truly pathetic TV and Radio Martí since 1985, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Cubans successfully jam the TV signal and all but shortwave radio transmissions. By Washington’s own estimation, only 1.7 per cent of Cubans ever listen to Radio Martí.
The finest beaches I have ever seen are near the city of Santiago de Cuba on the island’s eastern tip (close to Guantanamo) and are second only to those of Oman, in my experience. A nightmare scenario for me is that such idyllic places will suddenly be invaded by hordes of casino-bound US tourists chugging down their Cuba Libres.
But much of the thinking on the American right, as well as the left, is that more economic trade and tourism can only open up Cuba and simultaneously benefit relations with the US. “We need to give up the travel ban first and foremost. If it were up to me, obviously I’d lift the whole embargo,” Congressman Flake told me. “Having [it] has been a tremendous advantage, in my view, for the old regime.”
The ultimate sanction Congress can impose on a recalcitrant president is to withdraw funding for his policies, as some now want to do with financing the war in Iraq. But “I’d like to see [the travel ban bill] go through regular order and not have to amend appropriation bills,” says Flake. “We still face a difficult time going through regular order, given the composition of the foreign affairs committee of the House.”
Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung: successive US administrations sat back and assumed, wrongly, that once they had gone, magically democratic and pro-western leaders would materialise in their place. But it is not just Republican congressmen such as Flake or former CIA chiefs such as Porter Goss who see the departure of Fidel differently: General Michael Maples, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate recently that Raú Castro is firmly in control of a relatively stable, functioning Cuba and that no dramatic change should be expected soon.
US intelligence first reported that Fidel was dead in 1956, supposedly killed by Fulgencio Batista’s forces in the Playa Las Coloradas rebellion. More than half a century later, according to World Health Organisation figures, life expectancy is higher and infant mortality rates lower in Castro’s Cuba than in the US; it has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries and (according to the CIA’s own figures) its economic growth rate is 7.5 per cent. Perhaps that wild party at the Miami Orange Bowl will prove somewhat premature.