News Analysis: Sanctions Against Cuba Misguided Steve Libowitz --------------------- Editor Wayne Smith was not particularly surprised by last week's news that Cuba had downed two small U.S. planes piloted by Cuban exiles. "It was a tragedy waiting to happen," says the director of the Hopkins Cuba Exchange Program and a longtime advocate of improved U.S.-Cuba relations. Smith has been a consistent critic of the U.S. government's policy toward Cuba and has actively challenged the Clinton administration's attempts to restrict academic travel to Cuba. He believes the incident--and the official outrage expressed subsequent to it--occurred in part because of the U.S. government's "Cubaphobia," which may be fueled by the mainstream news media's myopic coverage. For example, much of the media generally neglected to report important contextual information surrounding the efforts of the Brothers to the Rescue, owners and pilots of the two downed planes. Smith relates the group had been overflying Cuba and penetrating Cuban airspace for more than two years. At first their mission was humanitarian, even though their leader, Jos‚ Basulto, is known to have had deep ties to the CIA, Smith says. The group mostly looked for people trying to escape Cuba by raft and then called the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them. But in May 1995, President Clinton decided to return all rafters to Cuba. And that, Smith says, fundamentally changed the mission of Brothers to the Rescue. "They began to fly supplies to rafters taking refuge on islands in the Bahamas, flying in Cuban airspace, dropping anti-government leaflets," Smith says. "They bragged openly in the exile press about flying down and even talked about their intention to pick up people, flying in arms and so forth. I don't have evidence that they did it, but they talked about it. "The Cuban government, on at least six or seven occasions, warned Basulto and the U.S. government to take all necessary measures to prevent these penetrations of Cuban airspace." But the U.S., Smith says, never did anything. The Federal Aviation Association never lifted the group's licenses, even though they regularly filed illegal flight plans. "So put the shoe on the other foot," Smith says. "Let's say light Cuban aircraft had been overflying downtown Washington, dropping [anti-Clinton and anti-government] leaflets. You can imagine that the U.S. would demand action to stop these overflights or serious consequences would result. "And that's basically what happened in Cuba. They saw that the U.S. was not doing anything. And given Basulto's CIA background, I think the Cubans suspected this was all part of a CIA or U.S. government plan. So in January this group overflew downtown Havana dropping leaflets, and the Cubans were livid. At that time they warned this group that if they penetrated Cuban airspace again, they'd be shot down. The Cubans sent a note to this effect to the [U.S.] State Department, and the State Department, again, did nothing." As to why this happened the way it did, Smith says, has a lot to do with the Clinton administration's desire to cozy up to the Cuban-American National Foundation, the powerful, right-wing exile group based in Miami. "I suspect Clinton hopes to appease them in hopes of winning electoral votes in Florida," Smith says. He does not rule out the possibility that Clinton understands that the wealthy Cuban exiles want to support a presidential candidate in November who supports their anti-Castro agenda. "And it almost comes down to [Clinton's] not being willing to stand up to these guys. And now this has all come home to roost," Smith says. The result of this policy--in the aftermath of last week's incident--will be the passage of the Helms-Burton bill. Smith says the bill will "effectively close the door to any improved relations between Cuba and the United States for at least five more years. It's the stupidest piece of legislation I've seen in 40 years." The bill, if passed and signed into law by the president as expected, will give the force of law to the United States' long-standing trade embargo on Cuba and will try to discourage foreign investments in Cuba. However, Smith argues that the bill's enactment actually will hurt the U.S. trade position in the hemisphere because countries that had perhaps been hesitant to invest or invest further in Cuba--not knowing whether or not the United States would end or modify its embargo--might move more aggressively now that they are sure there will be no U.S. competition. The only good news, Smith says, is that the policy will probably not affect his research efforts, which include conferences between Cuban and Hopkins academics, meeting in both Havana and in Baltimore and Washington. Cuban and American scholars met in January in Baltimore to discuss mutual environmental concerns, and Smith plans to follow up on that conference with one in Havana in the fall. Smith doubts the intention of the bill, and the government's broader Cuban policy, is to cut off people-to-people contact, but rather to squeeze the Cuban government for reasons that seem to him truly mystical. "I've been involved in this since 1957, and I've observed that Cuba has the same effect on the United States that a full moon has on werewolves."
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