US involvement isn’t helping the Cuban opposition

Justifiable protests against the regime in Havana are undermined by support from Washington.

A demonstrator argues with pro-government supporters at a park in Havana last Sunday  

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Cuban government has not fallen. Anti-government protests that were supposed to engulf the country in mid-November turned out to be far smaller than their promoters in Washington hoped. Most Cubans either disagreed with the protesters’ message or were sufficiently intimidated by police to stay home. It was the latest in an amazingly long line of failures for the Cuban regime-change lobby.

On the eve of this month’s long-planned protest, the US House of Representatives voted 382-40 for a resolution expressing “strong solidarity” with “courageous Cuban men, women, and youth taking to the streets in cities and towns across the country.” The tone was familiar. American leaders have sought to dominate Cuba from the very beginning of our national history. Thomas Jefferson called it “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.” In 1898 William McKinley sent troops to help Cuban patriots win independence from Spain — but then decided that Cubans could not handle real independence and turned their country into a protectorate instead.

For decades we supported corrupt and brutal Cuban dictators. After rebels led by Fidel Castro toppled the last one in 1959, Dwight Eisenhower ordered Castro “sawed off,” leading to repeated CIA assassination plots. John F. Kennedy tried to depose Castro through an exiles’ invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Sobered by the disastrous outcome, he conceded that the United States had committed “a number of sins” in Cuba and added, “Now we shall have to pay for those sins.”  We’re still paying. So are Cubans. “As a nation,” former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance mused in his memoir, “we seemed unable to maintain a sense of perspective about Cuba.”

President Obama’s breakthrough in relations with Cuba, involving a relaxation of sanctions and capped by a presidential visit to Havana in 2016, proved short-lived. President Trump returned to the default policy of unremitting pressure. Joe Biden said during his presidential campaign that he would “reverse the failed Trump policies,” but in office he has done the opposite. He has added new sanctions and refused to resume the diplomacy that Obama pursued.

The 60-year US campaign to undermine Cuba’s government remains highly active. Over the last year, at least 54 organizations dedicated to promoting anti-government actions in Cuba have received funding from the United States. The latest windfall came from the Agency for International Development, which was founded in 1961 to provide development aid to the needy but now also sponsors regime-change projects. In September, the agency gave more than $6 million to 12 groups that it says are “supporting human rights in Cuba,” exposing “exploitation of Cuban medical workers,” providing “humanitarian assistance for political prisoners,” and promoting “common goals for democracy.” One of Biden’s chief advisors on Latin America, Juan Gonzalez, recently asserted that the administration is “fully committed to supporting — supporting and strengthening — the voice of the Cuban people who want change.”

President Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba charged in a speech last month that American operatives are “playing an active role in efforts to subvert the internal order in our country.” That is evidently true, although exactly who in Cuba receives American money and how they use it remains unclear. Foreign subsidies for anti-government groups naturally intensify the siege mentality inside Cuba’s ruling elite. If agencies of the US government spend millions of dollars to foment upheaval in Cuba, and if Cubans are then urged to pour out for a well-advertised protest, some may be forgiven for seeing a connection.

Cuban leaders denounce prominent dissidents as mercenary tools of foreign power. Washington’s role as sugar daddy to the protest movement gives them powerful evidence. This latest failed attempt to spark a civic uprising was also America’s work in a broader sense: Decades of US sanctions have helped create economic deprivation that drives people to protest.

The appearance of a “Made in USA” label on the protests in Cuba is lamentable, because popular anger in Cuba is widespread and genuine. Cuba’s government has not evolved along with the country’s changing population. Free expression remains restricted. The ossified bureaucracy blocks reforms that would legalize more private enterprise. Basic goods have become scarce. Pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the collapse of the tourist industry, have intensified people’s frustration. Protests are justified. The flood of American aid that pours into protest movements, however, obscures their authenticity.

The United States has settled back into its familiar Cuba policy, interrupted only briefly in the Obama era: Make life miserable for Cubans, provoke discontent, and hope that this will somehow produce regime collapse. In June the United Nations General Assembly condemned this policy by a vote of 184-2. That has not deterred President Biden.

A Niagara of US dollars sustains a mini-industry dedicated to the delusion that the next putsch, coup, or revolution will succeed. It won’t. Our three-generation-long effort to destroy Cuba’s political system has impoverished Cubans, set off repeated crackdowns, and tarnished the cause of honest dissidents, but it has produced no positive results. This is our ultimate toxic relationship — a love affair turned murderous, a fixation, a fetish, a memory loop that endlessly repeats the same refrain. According to one medical dictionary, people become obsessive-compulsive when “the brain gets stuck on a particular thought and just can’t let go.” It happens to nations too.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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