QUERETARO, Mexico, May 14 (UPI) -- Why is the former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, in Cuba at the invitation of President Fidel Castro? The Economist magazine speculated that Castro is looking to have the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba softened. But the embargo does not trouble Castro. He is used to it. It fits comfortably. Something new troubles him: a U.S. president on the warpath.
The terrible events of Sept. 11 have made U.S. President George W. Bush a hawk ready to strike at those he perceives pose a military or terrorist threat to the United States. In Afghanistan the war is well advanced, though not yet entirely won. The "axis of evil" to which Bush referred last year included North Korea, Iraq and Iran. But Cuba, a thorn embedded in the soft underbelly of the United States, has been viewed with suspicion ever since the missile crisis of 1962. Suggestions in the United States that Cuba has biological weapons have made Cuba, in the eyes of some U.S officials, a credible threat.
This Monday there was confirmation of this line of thinking when the U.S. Undersecretary of State, John Bolton, said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, "Here is what we now know: The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort."
A U.S. president in an aggressive mood has alarmed the aging Castro. A former U.S. diplomat who was stationed in Havana said to United Press International, "It wouldn't surprise me if Castro were nervous post-Sept. 11. I guess that's one benefit of an unpredictable, pro-active-military U.S. president. But I doubt that Bush would actually follow through on a scheme like that."
According to Emily Morris, Cuba specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, "Ever since Sept. 11, Cuba has been scared of what the U.S. might do next, hence their quick condemnation of the (terrorist) attacks, willing acceptance of the (Taliban and al Qaida) prisoners at Guantanamo and repeated offers of further assistance on anti-terrorism."
At the same time as it is expressing its support for efforts against terrorism, Morris judges the Cuban government has increased its criticism of the United States and of the Bush administration in particular. It alleged, for example, U.S. involvement in the coup that briefly toppled Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in mid-April and denounced this as typical U.S. imperialism.
There has been, then, no softening of Cuba's line on the United States as imperialist enemy, no sign of a readiness to be conciliatory and seek an end to the U.S. trade embargo, merely an effort to signal to the United States that Cuba does not pose a terrorist threat.
Who better to reinforce that effort than the former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, a long-term dove on Cuba?
Carter's invitation came from Castro, who cast aside his military khaki Sunday and donned a sober business suit to greet Carter to the island. Castro on Monday wore a guayabera, the typical casual shirt of the island. His goal is to show that he is not a military enemy, not a terrorist, or a threat of any kind. And, as usual, the wily dictator's carefully laid plans are working perfectly.
Carter issued a statement Monday, which said that in preparation for his trip he had asked State Department officials if there is "any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes. And the answer from our experts on intelligence was 'no.'"
Further to this, Carter stated that Castro had said, "Any person who wanted to come and investigate any allegations concerning this bioterrorism issue would be free and welcome to come without restraint."
Carter is giving Cuba a clean slate where terrorism is concerned. It would now be difficult for Bush to contemplate a strike against Cuba -- if he were contemplating this extreme step at all. But Castro, who took the threat seriously, now has what he wants: an insurance policy.
And the insurance policy has some extra benefits as well. Castro has allowed Carter to meet with dissidents and to make comments about the need for democracy, but the net effect of Carter's visit will be to give the impression that Castro's Cuba is not such a bad place after all.
The former U.S. diplomat told UPI, "This all fits in with Castro's grand plan: keep the visits coming, keep the opposition completely powerless, throw bones to those who lap them up -- the Europeans, liberal members of the U.S. Congress, fellow leaders of rogue states, like-minded Latin leaders, fellow travelers everywhere."
Morris, in more restrained tones, essentially concurs, "In general, the Cuban government has found that the more the U.S. general public becomes aware of the issue of Cuban-U.S. relations, the more U.S. opinion shifts against the hard-liners."
But is our interpretation wrong? Should Castro's invitation to Carter be seen as something more, the beginning of a rapprochement between long-term enemies?
What must be borne in mind is that the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has been in place for 40 years. If it posed a danger to Castro, it is a danger that has been slow to realize itself.
On the contrary, the embargo has served Castro's purposes. So long as the Soviet Union existed, the loss of trade with the United States was more than made up for by favorable arrangements with allies to the east. Cuba was given Soviet oil in exchange for sugar, and in some years this oil was Cuba's main dollar export earner. The eastern bloc also supplied food, consumer goods and spare parts. This generosity helped to ensure that the island's standard of living was one of the best in Latin America.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of this welfare from the east, Cuba's standard of living has plummeted and Castro has taken to railing against the embargo, which he calls graphically "the blockade," as though U.S. warships besiege the island.
To judge by Cuba's economy, that might be the case. Cubans do not starve, but basics such as meat, vegetables, fruit, milk, shoes and paper are always in short supply. They are available for dollars, in the official dollar shops once reserved for tourists, and on the black market. For Cubans who do not have relatives overseas or a job in the dollar economy, and whose access to dollars is therefore poor, life is a struggle. Often Cuba's blacks are in this position, lacking relatives in Miami or jobs in the dollar economy.
Yet lack of trade with the United States is only part of the explanation for Cuba's penury. Cuba is free to trade with the rest of the world and does so. The fundamental problem is the communist economy and central planning. After more than 40 years of it, Cuba's economy has become less and less productive. The island has little to trade.
Yet removal of the U.S. trade embargo would change and enrich the island. U.S. investors would move into the Cuban market on the grounds that in 10 years or 20 the returns could be great. U.S. tourists would be likely to flock to the island, with its many historical towns and hundreds of miles of fine coastline. But this wave of investment would have a cost: the overwhelming of the restricted economy that has suited Castro's political purposes well.
A more free economy and one in which the old enemy's money was promoting change would make Castro's dictatorship an anachronism. How could he continue to justify the lack of any meaningful election if the enemy were no longer at the gate? Castro wants the U.S. embargo. To remove it would call the old dictator's bluff.
Carter's visit does rather the opposite. It makes a U.S. attack on the island -- which would have been foolish -- less likely, but at the cost of painting a falsely benign picture of Castro's repression.
Perhaps, before accepting the invitation, Carter might have asked himself whether his visit to Cuba would make the island a more free place.
A worried Castro has successfully pitted a dove against a hawk. For many in Cuba's thoroughly repressed population, Carter's smiling visit with Castro will be no more than an insult and an irritation.
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