Squeezing Cuba

WHEN IT COMES to encouraging more open societies in other countries, one can usually accomplish more by setting an example of adherence to democratic principles and of respect for human rights than by dictating rules for others to follow.

In that context, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and other miscues, the Bush administration is no longer in any position to set examples in Iraq. Nor is it in Cuba.


When humanitarian groups urge Cuba to permit a respected international agency to visit political prisoners on the island, for example, the Cubans can respond that they are simply following the lead of the United States, which has not permitted such visits to about 600 prisoners held at the Guantanamo Naval Base. And the conditions under which those prisoners have been held also set exactly the wrong example.

The Bush administration often has spoken of its commitment to family values, but in the new measures it is taking against Cuba that went into effect June 30, those are put aside.


For years, Cuban-Americans have been able to visit their families on the island once a year, and more often in case of severe illness or a death in the family. Further, there was no need to request permission to do so; they simply traveled under a general license.

But now their visits will be limited to once every three years, and they must apply each time for a license.

And no more emergency visits. If you visited your mother last year, but she is now deathly ill, too bad. There is no provision for a special license so that you can be at her bedside.

Most Cuban-Americans are outraged. As Alfredo Duran, leader of the moderate Cuban Committee for Democracy, put it: "This is a cheap shot from the administration. They've done this to assure the votes of a few hard-liners in the community, but at the cost of great pain and suffering to the rest of us. And what kind of example is this of respect for family values?"

With other communist states, such as China and Vietnam, the United States follows a policy of engagement, of cultural and academic exchanges, people-to-people contacts and open travel. That has produced positive results. In the case of Cuba, however, the Bush administration is moving in the opposite direction. Last year, it virtually cut off people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges. And academic exchanges have been one-way for months because the United States has refused visas to almost all Cuban scholars.

Another of the new measures will virtually rule out study programs for American students in Cuba.

Almost all such programs have been intersessions or summer courses that fit between semesters at universities in the United States. Knowing that, the administration has decreed that all such programs must be at least 10 weeks long. It is a way of ending study programs without actually saying so, for to participate in such semester-long programs, students would have to drop out of their own universities; few can afford to do so.

Universities around the country that had study programs in Cuba lament that their programs will be on hold, as will most of ours at Johns Hopkins.


What reasons does the administration give for curtailing such programs?

One is that the shorter programs have encouraged abuses and "disguised tourism." But there is no real evidence of that. If students wanted to engage in "disguised tourism," why could they not do so even more easily in semester-long programs than in shorter ones?

The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which recommended the new measures, also complained that the Cuban government "had often used the visits of U.S. education groups to cultivate the appearance of international legitimacy and openness to the exchange of ideas." The commission, appointed by President Bush in January, was chaired by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and was composed of representatives of 60 government agencies.

But this simply shows the skewed reasoning of the commission. Whatever else it is, the Cuban government is legitimate, recognized by 181 other governments, and a full member of the United Nations and various other international bodies.

Isn't an exchange of ideas what we wish to encourage? There may be a certain amount of cultivating an appearance on the Cuban side, but having accompanied a number of Hopkins programs in Cuba, I can attest that Americans can state their own views as well as hear those of the Cubans. What kind of example does our government set by opting not to have exchanges of ideas rather than working to expand them and make them more meaningful? Therefore, it is the United States that is preventing the exchange of ideas.

Surely, that's not a position in which our government should place itself.


Wayne S. Smith, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, is the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.