Monday, May 7, 2007

The distance from Miami to Havana

He spent a career writing for Cuban state media then left to join the opposition and to write as an independent journalist. Jailed in 2003, released in 2005, Manuel Vasquez Portal went into exile but his heart remains in Cuba and he wants to continue working for the cause he still espouses.

But how to do so from abroad?

He addresses that question in an article that says exile is at best “a personal truce” that brings relief from persecution but also “minimizes the impact of the opposition activist on his natural reality.”

Vasquez argues for the Cuban opposition, inside Cuba and out, to unite with discipline behind a common set of tactics – a goal that seems unattainable, even if strategically desirable. Fortunately for those of us who are not Cuban, that thorny question is none of our business.

But his main point is that anyone who wants to affect Cuba from abroad needs to begin by understanding that “the role of protagonist belongs to those who stay on the field of direct action.” And this: “One cannot export tactics when distanced from a changing reality.”

Mr. Vasquez is so diplomatic that he gives no examples of “exporting tactics.” But by raising the issue of distance – political distance – he seemed to me to touch on the factor that dooms many outside approaches to Cuba.

What might he have had in mind?

When the Pinar del Rio Catholic journal Vitral apparently closed, the Cuban American National Foundation offered to finance its operations so it would not have to close. The Foundation announced its offer to the media – a perfectly normal thing to do in the United States, but it doomed any hope of the offer being accepted in Cuba. The Cuban government views the Foundation as a terrorist organization; one does not have to agree with that view to see that from the church’s point of view, the publicity poisoned the offer.

The Directorio Democratic Cubano, an organization funded by the U.S. government, documents opposition activity in annual reports. The reports in recent years have found lots of private prayer vigils and relatively little open opposition such as non-cooperation or open defiance of the government. The Directorio and other organizations launched a campaign to promote non-cooperation, including posters and stickers urging Cubans, among other things, not to show up for work. Rather than deliver the materials to Cuba discreetly and let activists there do their work, generate publicity, and take credit, the organizations launched a publicity campaign in Miami, including press conferences, distribution of the campaign materials in Hialeah, and an event at the Coral Gables Country Club. The problem here is that even if the idea for the campaign originated in Cuba – a claim the Directorio makes – the Miami publicity gave it a made-in-the-USA stamp, and associated it with the Administration’s policy to change Cuba’s political order, which puts dissidents in more hot water than they are in already. Apart from reporting by U.S. government grantees, I have seen no reports on the impact of this campaign in Cuba. A sharper view of this operation – part of an emerging debate in Miami about the work of U.S. grantees – appears in Alajandro Armengol’s Cuaderno de Cuba.

But when it comes to lack of discretion, the U.S. government takes first prize.

By making aid to dissidents part of its “transition” plan – which sounds like a regime change plan to Cuban authorities – the U.S. government unnecessarily plays into the Cuban accusation that dissidents are nothing more than an extension of U.S. foreign policy.

Then there are other programs under that plan that are based on the naïve expectation that Cuba will cooperate with them. The most famous of these is the scholarship program for children of dissidents and political prisoners. Cuba, as one might expect, does not give exit permits to political opponents to go abroad for training. The last report I saw on this program indicated that Georgetown University, with $400,000 in government funding, had succeeded in bringing exactly two students out of Cuba.

I have no idea if Mr. Vasquez, based on his experience in Cuba, had initiatives like these in mind when when he wrote about the ineffectiveness of “exporting tactics.” But these stories and many more often make me think that the political distance between Miami and Havana is a lot greater than 90 miles.

1 comment:

El Gusano said...

The distance is 50 years.....