Regime change next door?

The U.S. is expected to increase pressure on Cuba at next week's human rights meeting in Geneva, but Castro's new friends in Latin America may provide some protection.

By Simon Tisdall
Published March 9, 2005 3:16PM (EST)

Unrelenting U.S. pressure on Cuba, set to ratchet up again at next week's U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, is testing relations between the Bush administration and a new generation of center-left Latin American leaders. As it has done each year since the early 1990s, the United States will urge the commission to adopt a resolution condemning Cuba's human rights record. And Cuban officials predict that the United States will again use "arm-twisting and threats" to get its way.

Republican attacks on President Fidel Castro's Communist government intensified during last year's American election campaign. Treasury Secretary John Snow tightened the 42-year-old U.S. embargo and vowed to "bring an end to the ruthless and brutal dictatorship." But George W. Bush's victory has not eased the pressure -- rather the reverse. A Republican-led congressional committee gave a platform to Cuban dissidents last week to publicize Cuba's "atrocious" behavior. Porter Goss, the CIA chief, recently described Cuba (and Venezuela) as a source of regional instability.

New U.S. rules, effective this month, will create more obstacles to American food sales to Cuba, affecting staples such as rice, wheat, soybeans and dried milk, in addition to the tougher curbs on commerce, visas and travel.

The United States devotes an estimated $36 million annually to encouraging political change in Cuba, employing the "soft power" tactics successfully used in eastern Europe. But according to Abelardo Moreno, Cuba's deputy foreign minister, the latest U.S. moves could foreshadow more muscular intervention. "U.S. officials are publicly speaking of regime change in Cuba. They were already attacking us as sponsors of terrorism. Now we are told we are an 'outpost of tyranny,'" Moreno said in London on Monday.

"We do not discount the possibility of military action against Cuba. The administration has to prepare public opinion. So human rights are being used. If the [U.N.] resolution is adopted, it will be extremely dangerous, more so than in previous years."

Moreno described the peaceful opposition as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States. But Christine Chanet, the U.N. commission's Cuba envoy, offered a different perspective last week. Chanet deplored Cuba's detention of 61 dissidents, first jailed in 2003, and the continuing arrest, disproportionate sentencing and intimidation of nonviolent political opponents.

Human Rights Watch's 2004 report said that "the Cuban government systematically denies its citizens basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement and a fair trial."

The European Union, which fell out with Cuba over the 2003 arrests, still has misgivings, despite a rapprochement promoted by Britain and Spain. British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell raised human rights concerns during a visit to Havana Tuesday.

Yet for all its failings, and disconcertingly for the United States, Cuba's government is steadily strengthening ties with its Latin American neighbors. Recently installed leaders in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela were raised in the left-wing, activist tradition of the 1970s and 1980s. For them, Che Guevara is more than a romantic character in a motorcycle road movie, and Cuba's revolution is deserving of their protection.

While following a broadly pragmatic line these days, all oppose Washington's embargo as much as they opposed the U.S.-driven, neoliberal free-market policies blamed for Latin America's economic woes.

Cuba's trade with Brazil has doubled since President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Washington's bête noire, is investing in Cuba's nascent oil industry and supplying discounted fuel. And Uruguay's new socialist leader, Tabare Vazquez, has restored full diplomatic relations. He revealed that Cuba was being considered for associate membership in the regional trade bloc Mercosur. If that is agreed to, it could further upset U.S. plans for a "Free Trade Area of the Americas."

Moreno evidently relishes Cuba's changing fortunes. "We feel very much more comfortable than before," he said. This, of course, is the opposite of what the United States intends. While Bush is busily remaking the Middle East in America's image, he may be losing the plot in his backyard.

Simon Tisdall

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