Editor’s note: Fidel Castro may be close to death, but his anti-American brother, Raul, is assuming control of a Cuba that has quietly made economic gains despite 44 years of U.S. sanctions.
Why, then, is the United States still pumping tens of millions per year into regime-change efforts that have proved to be a dismal failure?
An American documentary filmmaker who spent the last three years in Cuba digs at the truth from both sides of the Florida Straits.
This certainly wasn?t the way Fidel Castro imagined celebrating his 80th birthday on August 13th.
In the ideal version, the small island nation would have shut down to pay homage as its divisive autocrat began his ninth decade. From the peaks of Baracoa to the lush tobacco fields of Pinar del Rio, CDRs, political neighborhood watch groups sponsored by the Communist Party, would have organized large-scale gatherings to fete his new year. Hundreds of thousands of party members would have chanted, screamed and thrown their fists up in the Anti-Imperialist Plaza in the Vedado section of Havana. And Fidel himself probably would have topped off the fiesta by delivering one of his trademark seven-hour tirades extolling the virtues of the socialist state—a discourse that would all but cement his perceived immortality, commend his country?s increased economic position thanks to favorable trade terms from Venezuela and China, and vilify the bully 90 miles north that, through nine consecutive presidential administrations, has tried unsuccessfully to squeeze the Red out of his political machine.
To the surprise of Cubans on and off the island, the lead-up to Aug. 13 has been markedly atypical. Beginning in June, Cuba?s elite politburo effectively instructed the state-controlled media to officially announce Fidel?s 75-year-old younger brother, Raul, as successor. Then, late in the evening of July 31, Fidel Castro announced via the nightly news program, ?La Mesa Redonda,? that he would undergo serious surgery to alleviate intestinal bleeding. More important, during his recovery, he would temporarily cede power, and Raul would take over as El Jefe. In an uncharacteristic move that hints at the severity of his condition, Fidel has even pushed back his birthday celebrations from Aug. 13 to Dec. 2. While it benefits no one to place bets or revel in the potential timeliness or proximity of his death, the divergent and conflicting plans for transition and succession propagated from Miami, Washington, D.C., and Havana need to be scrutinized, now more than ever, to begin to gauge what the contesting visions hold for a struggling population of 11 million—and the last Communist country in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States? government unfettered zeal to unseat Castro and welcome democracy to Cuba has a fabled, near-cartoonish history that began in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the CIA undertook nearly 27 assassination attempts that ranged from an exploding cigar to a poisoned wet suit all the way to hitting the despot with the most potent LSD that Haight-Ashbury could manufacture. As the Cold War simmered, the U.S. government began to lose active, covert interest in eliminating Fidel. The successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, remained resolute on placating Miami lobbyist groups by tightening sanctions on the island, presumably to suffocate the country into revolt. Gone, though, were the days of James Bond-style espionage and attempted murder.
In the waning hours of the Clinton administration, America?s attitude toward Cuba began to change once again. USAID, a governmental organization that, since the inauguration of the Marshall Plan, has assisted countries in developing democratic reforms, began funneling money to activist groups in Miami. Those groups in turn attempted to channel the grants to dissidents on the island. But it wasn?t until 2004 that the size of America?s assistance packages began to square with the intensity of its anti-Castro rhetoric.
Under President George W. Bush, the budget to hasten Castro?s demise has grown from $7 million to $36 million biannually (.pdf file). The group largely responsible for the dispersal of these monies is Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), a Bush-established, State Department-administered organization aimed at bringing about democratic regime change in Cuba. To date, the majority of the funding has been allocated to the State Department, USAID and other government entities for the purposes of funding educational programs about democracy; fiscally propping up Cuban dissidents; eliminating illegal travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens; flushing out ?mules? that transport money to Cuban families; and supporting anti-Castro propaganda efforts.
However, the ineffectiveness of these programs (more on that later), has allowed Castro to categorize all the dissidents on the island as mercenaries—paid foot soldiers of the U.S. government and the Miami Mafia ? while at the same time lending credence to his claim that the U.S. stands on the brink of invasion at a moment?s notice.
And rather than backing off on these efforts, the U.S. seems determined to redouble them. Earlier this month, President Bush approved, upon the CAFC?s recommendation, a jaw-dropping $80 million every two years for efforts aimed at regime change in Cuba. Undeterred by a history of failure in Latin America in building democratic states, the Bush administration seems intent on continuing to pour money into a sinkhole that has already devoured nearly 50 years of effort and is likely to enable the Communist government to have its way in terms of power transfer.
Next page: Why has the U.S. spent almost $500 million on radio and TV programming that the vast majority of Cubans cannot receive?