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William Fisher: How Long Is Long Enough?

How Long Is Long Enough?

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Monday 20 November 2006

With everyone's attention riveted on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea these days, it's difficult to find anyone interested in thinking about the bankruptcy of US policies right here in our own hemisphere.

Grabbing the headlines recently have been Castro's illness and endless speculation about a post-Fidel Cuba, Hugo Chavez at the UN, calling George W. Bush "the devil," the election of Evo Morales, a left-leaning president in Bolivia, and the self-reinvention of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

But, absent such sensational developments, the US mainstream media is largely silent on hemispheric affairs.

The US response to the more sensational events conjures up memories of the Cold War, when two superpowers split the world into rival camps. Or, more recently, President Bush's Global War on Terror, where "you're either with us or against us."

Underpinning these responses is, in my view, a profound misunderstanding of Latin America and the aspirations of its people.

This is not rocket science. For over a century, the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean have been plundered and repressed by governmental and corporate colonialism. The tiny elites in most of these countries have grown vastly richer while most of their populations continue to live in poverty. Through successive administrations, our own government has compiled a shameful record of meddling to maintain an unsustainable status quo, of overthrowing governments that don't agree with our view of the world, of supporting despots who practice torture and "disappearance," and, to be charitable, turning a blind eye to death squads.

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Yet today, we seem surprised that this sordid history sometimes persuades Latin America's people to accept - even champion - demagogues. But Latin America has had demagogues for more than a century. Most were brutal dictators on the right. A few on the left expressed the people's pushback against these repressive tyrannies.

The over-the-top rhetoric of this pushback has, for decades, made the US the sole villain in the piece. And the US response has been to demonize and attempt to isolate the purveyors of this rhetoric. This approach is acceptable only if one shares George W. Bush's view of the world as neatly divided into "good" and "evil."

The inevitable result of this "my daddy is stronger than your daddy" approach is a bunch of children talking past one another, and accomplishing exactly nothing.

A perfect example of accomplishing exactly nothing can be found in a report issued last week by our Government Accountability Office, the Congressionally-mandated organization that helps our legislators fulfill their oversight responsibilities.

The GAO report found that US funds targeted to promote democracy in Cuba have been used to buy items like a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates. According to the report, one grantee "could not justify some purchases made with USAID funds."

Reuters reported that the GAO found little oversight and accountability in the program, which spent "$76 million between 1996 and 2005 to support Cuban dissidents, independent journalists, academics and others." It also found that 95 percent of the grants were issued without competitive bids.

The auditors questioned checks written out to some staff members, questionable travel expenses, and payments to a manager's family. One group acknowledged selling books it was supposed to distribute under the democracy-promoting program.

Out of 10 recipients of public money reviewed by the auditors, three failed to keep adequate financial records, the GAO said. A lot of the money was used to pay smugglers, or "mules," to avoid US restrictions on taking goods to Cuba.

Critics have long charged that such grants are aimed more at winning votes in Miami than triggering political change on the communist island, where Castro has ruled since his 1959 revolution. Imagine that! To protect recipients from prosecution, none of the money from the USAID or the State Department is paid in cash to people in Cuba. A Cuban law can impose jail sentences on citizens who receive money. Instead, the funds are distributed to Cuban-American groups in Miami, the heartland of opposition to Cuban president Fidel Castro, and in Washington, and are supposed to be used to buy medicines, books, short-wave radios, and other goods that are smuggled into Cuba.

President Bush has proposed increasing spending on Cuba-related programs, including propaganda transmissions by Radio and TV Marti, by $80 million over the next two years.

Which will accomplish what? Exactly nothing. Except more "my daddy is stronger than your daddy" rhetoric.

It has been 45 years since the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and 44 years since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. During that time, our trade embargo has provided foreign companies - many of which are longstanding US allies - an empty playing field for increasing exports and investments, particularly in agricultural produce and tourism. Having no ambassador in Cuba hinders our efforts to know what's going on there. It obliterates our ability to exert any influence whatever on the Cuban government or people. It totally forecloses any possibility of rapprochement with this island, 90 miles from Florida. And it negatively impacts many of our relationships with other Latin American nations. For American presidents, however, Cuba is the third rail of US politics. A few have tried to jump over the rail, but Cuban-American voters have always blocked the tracks.

Meanwhile, the US maintains embassies, ambassadors - and even aid programs - in countries whose behaviors are arguably far more egregious than Cuba's. Among them are such models of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Burma, and Uzbekistan.

For centuries, the criterion for one nation to have diplomatic relations with another has been whether the host country is a sovereign power. These days, the test seems to be whether "you're with us or against us" in the Global War on Terror. This is America shooting itself in the foot. The time for a serious review of our relationships with Cuba - and many other countries in Latin America - is comically overdue.

Maybe, after the Baker-Hamilton Commission solves all our Iraq problems, we could ask it to take a look at the Western Hemisphere.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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