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Thursday, July 11, 1996

The Circle Is Squared

It's almost comical watching the U.S. attempt to close the circle on the Cold War. Cuba, the sole remaining link, should have been a mere mopping-up operation after the demise of its Soviet subsidizers. Or so the enfevered thinking in Washington and Miami led us to believe. Next Year in Havana! was not just hortatory but inevitable.

The exile lobby and its Cuban American National Foundation trotted out Arthur Laffer to construct the economic blueprint for its victorious return. And it propelled Rep. Robert Torricelli into full gallop to author the so-called Cuban Democracy Act which bars trade with Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of American corporations and imposes sanctions on countries providing aid to Cuba. (Though the New Jersey Democrat voted against funding for the Nicaraguan contras, his state has 85,000 Cuban American residents, and Torricelli at minimum is known to have the linebacker eyes of the discerning pol.)

Canada and the European Union have now made it plain that the Helms-Burton law, the latest bit of bipartisan U.S. idiocy directed at Cuba, will go unheeded. Canada has told its companies to ignore American threats of sanctions and litigation for "trafficking" in U.S. property expropriated by Cuba in 1959. Meanwhile the EU is preparing a retaliatory package of countermeasures which may include freezing U.S. assets, requiring visas for American travelers, and lodging a formal complaint against the U.S. with the World Trade Organization.


Clinton faces another test of his great principles presently when he will be forced to decide on the provision in Helms-Burton which would allow U.S. companies and citizens to sue foreign companies which are operating in Cuba and currently using American properties confiscated in 1959. Were it not for the mobilizing international outcry from the EU, the Group of Seven and the OAS -- and the considerable impact of Canadian tourists threatening to boycott Florida -- Clinton's political truckling would surely result in a cave-in to Jorge Mas Canosa and his exile band. The less tremulous course would be to avoid such a messy showdown with our trading partners and temporarily refuse to genuflect to Mas Canosa despite the electoral importance of Florida. The considered bet is that Clinton will do exactly that, commit the right deed for the wrong reason, and take advantage of the provision's six-month waiver clause.

Because the waiver is renewable, the issue will assume operatic urgency in Miami, adding a suitably rheumy sheen to the U.S.' Cuban American albatross. What Cold War bipolar significance Cuba once had is now only the concern of archivists, but the mucky irony is that the old Soviet-Cuban arrangement -- unquestionably driven by the client, not the superpower -- is now ours to simulate in perpetual, if unintended, parody. No faction of the American plutocracy dares ignore the braying of Mas Canosa and his merry gang of pretenders.

This ground has been tilled endlessly, but deserves another pass: It remains a real stretch to view the exile leadership in any other light than that of arrant illegitimacy (I'm tending toward politeness here, I know). They numbered 150,000 strong in the pre-Castro era, distinguishing themselves by effortless cultural and economic fealty to the North American stranglehold on all aspects of Cuban life. No surprise that this abiding posture should find tidy congruence with contemporary capital's blatant non-allegiance to national borders and the lives of workers. (Do you suppose Cuban American operatives masquerading as "sports agents" promise "exploited" Cuban athlete defectors meetings with Michael Jordan and Phil Knight at the Nike compound?) Just as the exiles play the client card to effect a return on their own terms to the nominal homestead, once they're reestablished it's safe to assume the greeting they extend to their old colonial overlords will be most complaisant.

Since 1990 Washington has thought it could fashion such a change on the cheap, under the presumption that Castro was tottering. It brought the exiles out of the pantry and into the front parlor, and has let them do the cachet-by-default paseo. Until fairly recently the shared vision of a fantasy island where plundered holdings had been reclaimed and all had been made safe for Starbucks and Kmart seemed imminently corporeal.


American businessmen have been far less clairvoyant regarding such a turnabout. And of late they've become overtly vocal about the stupidity and obstinacy of the permanent government's bipartisan attitude. As a practical matter, the Torricelli and Helms bills, added to the embargo, have cemented European and Latin American investment in Cuba. That $2 billion in European investments alone since the early 1990s, U.S. businesses realize, could just as readily have been proffered by American firms. Subject to El Jefe's terms, of course, but better than nothing.

Electoral concerns of our twin-headed Party of Fear warrant that U.S. policy stay hostage to Mas Canosa's provocations and intransigence. The insistence on a symbolic final solution to the Cold War thus picks up ancillary baggage as well, with a trade war invoking echoes of Reaganite anger over European aid to Nicaragua and the suggestion of "third way" social democracy. Take it another step back, and the Monroe Doctrine is reborn. Sure, there's a choice: Jettison these Miami troglodytes, or keep running the flag up the pole and rename it Old Hoary.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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