The political debris from the Cuban downing of two small planes over the Florida Straits is likely to affect U.S. relations with Cuba for years to come. In addition to the four Cuban-American pilots who lost their lives, a prudent, well-conceived U.S. policy toward the Castro regime has become a victim of this tragedy.
Already, the incident has prompted a retrenchment of a hard-line antagonistic policy in the form of new legislation sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton that passed Congress and gained President Clinton's backing last week. "Farewell Fidel" is the message of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, according to Senator Helms.
The political pressure surrounding this episode has left little room for an examination of the context and history in which the downing occurred. Cuba's action been condemned by Mr. Clinton as "an appalling reminder of the nature of the Cuban regime -- repressive, violent, scornful of international law."
In presenting their position, the Cubans make it clear that they have repeatedly warned the U.S. government and Brothers to the Rescue, whose planes were shot down, that repeated overflights would not be tolerated. Following two overflights on January 9 and 13th, when small aircraft dropped leaflets over Havana, the Castro government sent its final diplomatic note to the U.S. State Department, stating Cuba's position that "our patience has a limit."
A Cuban Ministry note released Feb. 25, a day after the downing, states: "After exhausting the recourse of warnings and adopting a very cautious manner in the face of repeated declarations and actions of an aggressive nature...the Cuban government decided to interrupt the continuation of air flights that transgress the Cuban sovereignty and put in danger the lives of Cuban citizens."
In the end, however, the violent deaths of the four young men come in the context of a long history of U.S. antagonism toward the Cuban revolution, and the continuing tensions in relations with Washington.
Since the Bay of Pigs invasion thirty five years ago this April, Cuba has been forced to defend itself against multiple forms of U.S. aggression, all designed to overthrow the regime. During CIA-sponsored operations in the early 1960s, small planes like those that were shot down dropped bombs on Havana and speedboats entered Cuban harbors and attacked hotels, ships and other economic targets. Indeed, Jose Basulto, the leader of Brothers to the Rescue, participated in some of those attacks and Cuban authorities still consider him to be a CIA terrorist. The Miami Herald has characterized his group as "provocateurs."
During my own visit to Cuba just before the downing, I discovered that suspicions toward Washington were running high. Cuban political analysts, academics, reformers and government officials, attributed the heightened tensions to a Clinton administration initiative, launched last October, known as Track II.
White House officials describe Track II (which permits increased travel, opening of news bureaus, cultural contacts, and special licenses for non-governmental organizations to undertake activities "that will support the development of civil society in Cuba") as a way to apply the lessons of the fall of the Soviet bloc -- that engagement with the West can erode the control of Communism.
Unfortunately, U.S. officials framed this initiative as a clear effort to undermine Castro, provoking a harsh reaction by Cuban authorities. "All contact with Americans is viewed with suspicion now," one Cuban official acknowledged.
"They are fighting Track II to the bitter end, one Western diplomat in Havana told me. "The Cuban government feels very threatened by Track II."
That insecurity clearly played a role in the decision to meet the Brothers to the Rescue planes with violent force.
Coming in the midst of a presidential campaign, the air attack has generated the inevitable political rhetoric, bombast, and pressure. Senator Bob Dole has accused the Clinton administration of "coddling" the Castro regime. "It has got to be U.S. policy to remove Fidel Castro from power," thunders Patrick J. Buchanan.
Thus, the Cuba issue has become a political football in election year politics -- a situation that neither Bill Clinton nor Fidel Castro wanted. For the Cuba, it is a cyclical phenomenon; almost every four years since 1964, progress toward improvement in U.S. Cuban relations has been sacrificed on the altar of presidential politics.
For Mr. Clinton, it means having to placate the small but virulently vocal contingent of Cuban Americans in Florida, who have held U.S policy hostage to electoral politics.
For Mr. Clinton to have any hope of winning Florida in November, he now has decided to sign the "Helms-Burton" bill -- legislation which will tighten the 33-year old U.S. trade embargo by punishing countries like Canada, Britain, Spain and Mexico which have investments in Cuba. The law also mandates a punitive, hard-line U.S. policy until Fidel Castro is somehow removed from power. Only a few months ago, the Clinton administration was vowing to veto this very same bill because of its negative impact on the principle of free trade, U.S. relations with our industrial allies, and the president's constitutional perorgative to make foreign policy.
Indeed, just last spring the longstanding tensions between the United States and Cuba seemed to be easing. In May 1995, the Clinton administration announced the normalization of immigration procedures between the United States and Cuba. In August, The New York Times reported that U.S. business interests were lobbying the White House to lift the trade embargo and restore relations with Havana as the administration had done with Vietnam.
In October, Fidel Castro visited New York and received intense interest from the media and the business community.
Now that momentum toward adopting a reasonable post-Cold War open-door strategy with Castro's regime -- an approach that even a growing number of conservatives believe will contribute to the ongoing economic transition, and inevitable political change in Cuba, has been dramatically reversed.
In its place, the U.S. will now escalate the "powder keg" approach of squeezing Cuba until it implodes. A special 1995 300-page contingency study done for the Pentagon, "The Military and Transition in Cuba," reported that an outbreak of civil unrest in Cuba would have serious implications for U.S. interests, including a massive exodus of refugees and "intense pressure for U.S. intervention." This is clearly what the sponsors of Helms-Burton, and groups like Brothers to the Rescue have in mind.
For more than 35 years, overthrowing Castro has been an obsession of U.S. policy makers. That obsession is at the heart of many of the worst foreign policy problems, scandals and conflicts during the Cold War: the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, the Cuban missile crisis, the CIA assassination efforts, the exodus of refugees to Florida's shores.
A policy of punitive pressure is a policy that has been tried -- and it has failed. It has fueled tension, misery and bloodshed even now after the Cold War has ended. After the political dust settles on this regretable episode, Washington must go back to the policy drawing board and develop an approach that reflects a commitment to stability and a peaceful transition in Cuba.
Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project of the National Security Archive, a Washington D.C. research library. His plane left Havana fifteen minutes after the Cubans shot down two civilian aircraft on Feb. 24.