WASHINGTON -- Uruguay's President Jorge Batlle was engaged on Feb. 15 in a cordial Oval Office conversation with President George W. Bush, pledging his support for the war against terrorism, when the South American visitor hit a raw nerve. It would help the anti-terrorist cause, said Batlle, if the U.S. ended its "blockade" of Communist Cuba.
Bush made emphatically clear that he would have none of this. He told Batlle it is absolutely necessary to continue "what you call the blockade" -- actually, the long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba -- so long as "that tyrant" continues his present anti-democratic, anti-human rights rule. That tyrant is Fidel Castro.
The American president's outburst sets right some misconceptions in Havana, at the U.S. State Department and on Capitol Hill. The word has been spread that under Secretary of State Colin Powell's tutelage, Bush was going to seek normalization with Castro's dictatorial regime. While the trade embargo may be modified, it will continue and will no longer be the only instrument deployed by Washington to democratize Cuba. What's more, Powell is fully on board with an expanded anti-Castro strategy.
The Castro regime is so out of touch with this reality that Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section (in lieu of an embassy) in Havana, was called into the Cuban Foreign Ministry the first week of February and given a dressing down. She was informed that she misrepresented the U.S. government a few days earlier when she said U.S.-Cuban relations will never improve unless and until Castro's harsh dictatorship softens.
Ironically, Huddleston was sharply criticized by Cuban-Americans for tilting toward Castro during the Clinton administration. Her attitude was instantly transformed when George W. Bush took the oath. Cuba's Communist rulers are outraged that Huddleston's U.S. mission is violating censorship by distributing books, video and audio tapes and cheap shortwave radios. Huddleston, a career foreign service officer, is merely following the old-fashioned professional diplomat's mandate to follow policies of the country's elected chief of government.
Other State Department careerists don't seem to understand that Bill Clinton no longer is president. Jim Carragher, coordinator for Cuban affairs, and Ambassador John F. Maisto, special assistant to the president for Latin America, still lean toward rapprochement with an unreformed Cuba. Like-minded officials include Kevin Whitaker, deputy director of the Cuban desk, and his wife, Betsy, who works in public diplomacy.
Many of these officials believe presidents come and go but Janice O'Connell lasts forever. O'Connell is a veteran Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who (sponsored by Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut) relentlessly presses for normalization with Castro. She approves personal service contracts by the U.S. mission in Cuba and recently warned a staffer there that his aggressive distribution of books and radios would get him get kicked out of the country. She is particularly close to State Department lobbyist Maria Trejo, who is supposed to be representing the president's policies.
O'Connell was instrumental in stalling the installation of Bush's nominee as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: Cuban-born Otto Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela. Disinformation was spread that Powell wanted to abandon Reich, but the president -- backed by Powell -- gave Reich a recess appointment while the Senate was not in session. A new nomination of Reich will soon be sent to Congress, and ways will be found to keep him in a policymaking position if Senate Democratic leaders continue to deny him a vote.
Reich is now at work at the State Department a year late, working closely with Powell. An effective ally -- Col. Emilio Gonzalez, a former West Point professor -- has been named to the National Security Council staff. Pro-Castro diplomats at the U.S. mission in Havana are about to be rotated elsewhere (though they are getting plum new assignments in Geneva and Lisbon, while Huddleston's next post is scheduled to be the less than popular Mali embassy in Africa).
Castro's charm offensive is in full swing, wining and dining American politicians in an effort to open the country to American trade and aid without Cuban democracy and human rights. President Bush is dedicated to prevent that, even if some foreign service officers do not yet realize it.
A recent column incorrectly stated that Barry Goldwater was the last Republican nominee for president to lose the state of North Carolina. Gerald Ford lost the state to Jimmy Carter in 1976.