US-Cuba relations strained as Castro era winds down
| SALT LAKE CITY
Don't look for any détente in US-Cuba relations soon, and certainly not until after the presidential election.
There are more than 800,000 Cuban-Americans in Florida, most of them with little love for Fidel Castro. They were a critical factor in President Bush's 2000 victory over Al Gore, swinging the state to Mr. Bush by a slim margin. Bush will not want to alienate them in 2004.
There is some sentiment in Congress for lifting the ban on trade with, and travel to, Cuba. Some US businesses and travel agents see money to be made if the sanctions were lifted. They were pitched at a meeting in Cancún, Mexico, last September by Cuban officials who see visions of a billion dollars a year flowing into Cuba once the travel ban is relaxed. But Bush is hanging tough and is set to veto any such legislation. His argument is that any US move toward normalization of relations with Cuba must be preceded by movement toward democracy and recognition of human rights by the Castro regime.
No signs of such moderation are evident in Havana. To the contrary, there is a tightening of censorship.
Recently the government initiated new controls over the Internet, seeking to deter thousands of Cubans from tapping into information that flows over it from the free world. Access to the Web is already controlled by permit, but many Cubans have tapped into it clandestinely, piggybacking on a government-controlled intranet, or via home telephone service. This access is now forbidden; users are subject to imprisonment.
The regime has also ordered an inventory of all computers in Cuba, misuse of which would be punished by similar penalties.
Mr. Castro also uses powerful Chinese-supplied jammers to black out the news and messages of Radio Marti and TV Marti, the US government radio and TV services set up to broadcast information from the free world to Cuba. To overcome the jamming, the services have been looking to broadcast their signal from a high-flying military C130 but the cost, $100,000 a day, is prohibitive. Smaller, cheaper aircraft are now under consideration.
Meanwhile, US diplomats stationed in Cuba are harassed. Their car tires have been punctured, they have been watched and followed, their movements have been restricted, and there is evidence that their homes may have been entered.
Retaliatory restrictions have been placed on the movement of Cuban diplomats in the Washington and New York areas. Granma, the official Cuban newspaper, has complained that the US is withholding visas permitting the wives and families to visit several Cubans held in American prisons for spying. The men concerned, sentenced for their activities in a Cuban spy ring operating in the US, are lauded in the Castro-controlled press as national heroes.
In another move that indicates a straining of already tenuous relations with Cuba, the US has suspended annual immigration talks with Havana. For the past decade, the US has had an agreement to permit the entry of up to 20,000 legal Cuban immigrants a year. But to come to the US, they need both an American entry visa and a Cuban exit permit. Sources close to the operation say that the Castro government has refused to issue exit permits to emigrants already cleared by the US for travel to America. Another problem is the refusal by Castro to accept repatriation to Cuba of 1,000 Cubans who have committed crimes in the US, and served their sentences, and are now due for expulsion.
With no prospect of any early easing of tensions between the two countries, Bush is apparently taking the longer view. He has directed Secretary of State Colin Powell and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez to chair a commission developing a blueprint to help Cuba move to democracy whenever Castro leaves power.
Mr. Powell told reporters: "It's prudent for us, as Castro gets older and his regime gets rustier, to start thinking about the fate of millions of people in Cuba who one day will be free."
At the Americas summit in Monterrey, Mexico, last week, the president reaffirmed his view that democracy must come to Cuba. Nobody is predicting when that will be.
But rumors persist that Castro's health is in decline. At a rally Jan. 3 to honor heroes of the Cuban revolution, he delivered a speech of only 45 minutes - much shorter than his usual two and three-hour orations on such occasions. While he usually speaks extemporaneously, on this occasion he read his speech from prepared pages.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.