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Assessment: Cuba
February 2009

Cuba is published by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.

No Changes in Thirty Years 

The effectiveness of the U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba has been debated for quite a long time. To be more exact, since the day the embargo was introduced in 1962. Cuban communists vehemently opposed the measure, and so did their Socialist allies and various international movements reared by the Soviet Union, as well as American and European leftists, and those in Europe who don’t quite belong to the leftist camp. In 47 years of economic sanctions, so many swords were crossed over Cuba and so many heated arguments were heard that it seems absolutely impossible to say anything new on this subject. 

Hence, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shared nothing new, saying, according to Reuters, on February 23 that the new U.S. administration should rethink its attitude toward Cuba. “We must recognise the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests,” Lugar said in the introduction to a report written by staff who work for the committee’s Republicans.

The report said U.S. policy toward Cuba is a source of tension with many other countries and keeps the United States from influencing or understanding Cuba. “The U.S. is left as a powerless bystander, watching events unfold at a distance,” said Reuters citing the document.

According to Reuters, the report stopped short of recommending an end to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, but urged President Obama to “seize the initiative” by attempting gradual engagement with Cuba.

However, Lugar didn’t make it very clear what does engagement with the current communist regime in Cuba mean at this stage. Does it mean lifting the embargo, or encouraging Obama and  Castro to visit each other in Havana and Washington, or will it go further by sharing experience in state activity. The United States even might hand over the military prison at Guantánamo Bay to Cuba as a goodwill gesture. Surely, Cuban dissidents would find it a much better place to be than Combinado del Este prison near Havana or Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba. Wouldn’t it be a really generous humanitarian gesture, giving the U.S. government an opportunity to influence Cuba’s domestic policy good and proper? 

I can’t say whether folks in the great State of Indiana will be surprised to know that Senator Lugar -- the man they voted for in U.S. Senate election in 2008 – doesn’t give a damn about human rights, although I can say I am not. To understand my reasons, let’s travel back in time to events in April 1979.  

It was the time when a group of American senators, including Richard Lugar, came to the Soviet Union on an official visit. The delegation was led by Senator Joseph Biden, who – for better or for worse – has now become vice-president. The talks focused on the SALT II treaty and reducing the bulk of U.S. weapons deployed in Europe. As it always happens, part of the agenda was discussed behind the curtain. The off-record details of the talks became known many years later when a memo written by Vadim Zagladin, the then deputy head of the CPSU Central Committee’s International Department who received the delegation, was obtained and brought into the open.

The memo “On the Basic Contents of Talks with the U.S. Senators” is dated April 19-20, 1979. Paragraph 4 of this archival document reads:

It should also be noted that, this time, the delegation did not officially raise the issue of human rights during the negotiations. Biden said they did not want 'to spoil the atmosphere with problems which are bound to cause distrust in our relations.' However, during the breaks between the sessions the senators passed to us several letters concerning these or those 'refuseniks'.

Unofficially, Biden and Lugar said that, in the end of the day, they were not so much concerned with having a problem of this or that citizen solved as with showing to the American public that they do care for 'human rights'. They must prove to their voters that they are 'effective in fulfilling their wishes'. In other words, the collocutors directly admitted that what is happening is a kind of a show, that they absolutely do not care for the fate of most so-called dissidents.

In the same conversation, Biden asked us to ensure that senators' appeals on those issues are not left unanswered – even if we just reply that the letter is received but we cannot do anything.
According to Biden, letters of this kind – if they are not addressed to the highest representatives of the Soviet state – sometimes remain unanswered.

Of course, one can say Zagladin was lying, playing down the importance of the human rights issue in Soviet-American relations, but it’s rather unlikely as he was not the only negotiator in those talks and would have hardly dared to risk his job by deceiving his Kremlin bosses. Most likely, Zagladin gave a truthful account of the episode, and some U.S. senators have always considered and still use human rights as a political bargaining chip. And Sen. Richard Lugar’s present mindset regarding communist Cuba serves as yet another proof of that fact. 

Alexander Podrabinek
Moscow, February 2009


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