Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 4, 1996

News Analysis: Sanctions Against Cuba Misguided

Steve Libowitz

     Wayne Smith was not particularly surprised by last week's
news that Cuba had  downed two small U.S. planes piloted by Cuban

     "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´┐Ż
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.

     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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