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When Will Regime Change Happen in Cuba? - 2003-03-03

MR. MORALES: Cuban refugees and many observers point out that human rights and political freedoms under Fidel Castro are few. Cuba's economy has been virtually stagnant for years as the regime tries to balance economic reform and political control of the country. Yet despite a decades-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, 76-year-old Fidel Castro remains in power.

Joining me to examine whether the Castro regime might be coming to an end are: Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs; and Jon Utley, Robert A. Taft Scholar in Political and Constitutional Systems at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Both public policy research groups have offices here in the nation's capital.

Jon Utley, let me begin with you. What are the prospects for regime change in Havana?

MR. UTLEY: Well, I don't think there are many. Until Castro passes away, there is almost no chance. The United States is certainly not focusing on Cuba anymore -- with what's going on in the Middle East and then with North Korea -- and Cuba is just on ice. The policy is somewhat paralyzed. The Cuban-American lobby, of course, has strong influence over policy, and nobody wants anything to change. They may say they do, but no one is making any movements. And, of course, Castro himself wants to maintain the dictatorship. So, nothing will change.

MR. MORALES: Larry Birns, do you see it that way?

MR. BIRNS: I think what we are witnessing is the erosion of a policy. There was a certain consensus for a U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba. This is a policy that, for decades, was the motivating factor behind Washington's initiatives. I think we are seeing a real across-the-board meltdown. You will find that traditional conservatives feel that the Cuban embargo has long outlived its usefulness.

You now have a very significant bloc of Republican farm state U.S. congressmen and senators who are calling for the normalization of trade and travel to Cuba. In fact, in recent votes, a majority of the members of the lower house [of the U.S. Congress, i.e., the House of Representatives] have voted to lift the embargo against Cuba. And you're seeing prominent businessmen, prominent labor leaders asking for the same.

MR. UTLEY: I think that's true. That's true that there is rethinking among the right in America, the conservatives, about economic embargoes for various countries, including Cuba. However, the Cuban-American lobby, if you will, does not change. I don't think there is movement there. They are the political power in Florida, which is a vital state for President Bush. Until they change, nothing else will.

MR. MORALES: If there is change that's going to come to Cuba, what might it look like? Is it perhaps just waiting for Mr. Castro to leave, either gracefully or to pass away, or something else?

MR. UTLEY: No. I think it's very dangerous. There is no evolution, like in Eastern Europe and Russia. The nomenklatura, the [Communist Party] ruling class, is there with its back to the wall. There is no opening. The U.S. should make an effort to separate Castro from his ruling class. Washington does not do that. I think the chances of a very bloody revolution are possible when Castro dies.

MR. BIRNS: In these things, it is always best to not postpone things to the unknown. What we should be doing right now is fashioning a really active, sensible, rational policy that deals with the leader in place. We shouldn't be thinking about what happens after Castro dies. We should be dealing with Castro.

It might happen, as John suggested, that there will be a Goetterdammerung [i.e., total destruction in a final battle among all sides], that there will be a fight going on between the various wings of the Communist Party and dissidents, those who would like to chuck the entire Castro system. Then, of course, there are the aspirations of the Cuban diaspora in Miami, a million strong. They will want to play a prevailing role in what takes place in Cuba. There is undoubtedly going to be a split between mainlanders [i.e., Cubans in the U.S.] and islanders [i.e., those in Cuba] as to the nature of Cuban governance in the future.

All of this is guesswork. But right now, people are speculating that Raul Castro -- who is only several years younger than his older brother and certainly is not a dynamic figure with a strong hold on the Cuban people -- is not the next leader of Cuba. There is a younger strata of leadership that Castro has been developing. It involves his Foreign Minister and the head of the Congress. These might be appealing people.

But, in general, I think that a winning U.S. foreign policy would be one that would not have the dead hand of Miami [i.e., the U.S. Cuban community] on it but would really take into account U.S. basic national interests. And those are to achieve some sort of settlement with Cuba while Castro is alive.

MR. MORALES: Jon, what sort of policy should the U.S. be pursuing at this point?

MR. UTLEY: I think we have the examples of Eastern Europe. In others words opening it up, I think, to trade, to visits by people. The free market and freedom are tremendously corrosive in that they rot away at the foundations of dictatorships. And we should allow communication and so on, while looking for the model also to allow the ruling class a way out. This was done in Eastern Europe, and so there was no bloodshed. Granted, it may not be fair that many of those rulers then are in top positions in business, but it is a way. I think the worst this is if you set off a bloodshed and then there is a vendetta going on for years. There is no way out at the moment and the United States, of course, is not able to pay attention to Cuba [with Iraq and North Korea taking up much of Washignton's attention].

MR. MORALES: We have about a minute left, and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Jon Utley: If there is change to come to Cuba, certainly there are a number of problems that need to be addressed after that change takes place. In your view, what are they and how would a country like the United States -- and, for that matter, the rest of the international community -- help address those problems?

MR. UTLEY: I think allowing communication, openness and giving people a way out. You want to separate Castro from his ruling class there.

MR. BIRNS: I would say I certainly am in favor of letting freedom ring. That is, I would like activity taking place -- travel, groups talking to each other. On a recent trip I made to Cuba, I went to the National University, and those students were very outspoken. Some of them said to me they would like to bag [i.e., leave] Havana and go to Miami. What we have to do is to get out of the Cold War mentality we've been in for so long.

MR. MORALES: We'll have to end it there. I would like to thank my guests: Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs; and Jon Utley, Robert A. Taft Scholar in Political and Constitutional Systems at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.