Split amongst Cuban contras, cracks in the blockade

By Tim Anderson

June 11, 2010 -- A major split over the US blockade of Cuba has emerged between domestic "dissidents" in Cuba and their former partners in Miami. The US corporate media is paying attention to what appears to be a new anti-Cuban strategy.

A letter signed by 74 of the "dissidents" on the island calls for an end to Washington's ban on US citizens travelling to Cuba. On the other hand, most of the Cuban-American members of Congress are fiercely defending the nearly 50-year-old economic blockade, in all its forms. The "new contras" are now up against the old.

The split represents a genuine difference in counter-revolutionary tactics, but is also linked to squabbles over money. For many years "dissidents" in Cuba have privately complained that most of the millions of dollars pledged by Washington -- for a "transition" to capitalist "democracy" in Cuba -- is snapped up by Miami.

There have been scandals over the misuse of the millions of US government dollars funnelled into propaganda channels aimed at Cuba. Miami-based Radio Marti and Television Marti were recently criticised by US Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry as corrupt, ineffective and of little interest to young Cubans.

The occasion for the current disagreement is debate over two bills before US Congress which would significantly alter a policy that is condemned every year at the United Nations. In 2009, 187 countries condemned the economic blockade of Cuba.

In February this year the Travel Restriction Reform Act and Export Enhancement Act were introduced into Congress. The former was developed by the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and the latter by the House Agriculture Committee. They are sponsored by dozens of representatives from both US parties.

The Export Enhancement Act would allow "normal" banking procedures to sell produce to Cuba; it says nothing about purchasing anything from the little socialist country. The Travel Restriction Reform Act would allow US citizens to travel freely to Cuba. US travel agents expect a strong tourist reaction, if the bill passes.

Prominent "dissidents" including Yoani Sánchez, Guillermo Fariñas and Elizardo Sánchez oppose the "isolation" imposed by the blockade, saying "any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society". However these "new contras" are famous for their support in the US, rather than in Cuba.

In their letter, dated May 30, they say, "We know that major non-governmental organisations support this bill, including to name only a few: the United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Amnesty International, [and] Human Rights Watch."

They claim that while "repression and systematic violations of human rights have recently increased in a cruel and public way" [a reference to strong public denunciations of the tiny contra demonstrations in Cuba] they believe that "if the citizens of the United States, like those of the rest of the world, increased their presence on our streets" they could become "witnesses of the suffering of the Cuban people" and "offer solidarity and a bridge to facilitate the transition we Cubans so greatly desire".

Apparently the two and a half million tourists that visit Cuba every year are unable to be such "witnesses", nor provide the solidarity these "dissidents" seek. Indeed, few of the Canadians or Europeans visiting Cuba have much interest in old Cold War agendas. With the exception of some right-wing foundations in Spain, very few provide any funds for Cuba’s contras, new or old.

Nevertheless, it is true that greater traffic between the US to Cuba would open up the possibility for more US government contacts, lessening the mediation role of the old guard in Miami. Fearing this, the old guard are hanging on to the almost universally condemned blockade.

South Florida Congress member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said last year: "How could anyone credibly argue that lounging on the beaches of Varadero or partying in the nightclubs until the wee hours of the night will bring freedom and democracy to the Cuban people?" She was backed by fellow Republican from Texas Mike Conaway, and Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, while Congress member Connie Mack screams: “This is a Castro bailout, Mr. Chairman ... a bailout for tyranny.”

The "new contras" are against this, arguing reasonably, "Because the ability to travel freely is the right of every human being, we support this bill." They may have added an important voice to the US debate.

The Cuban government, for its part, has always strongly opposed the travel ban. When the country was opened to large scale tourism, in the mid 1990s, it was accepted as logical that US citizens would become the largest group of visitors.

To many the prospect of millions of US tourists coming in one’s direction is daunting; but Cubans have their typical confidence that they can handle the onslaught.

The "new contras" hope that US tourism and handouts to favoured "dissidents" will challenge a system that has delivered exceptional health care, education and social solidarity. The revolutionaries think they can turn it to their advantage, and withstand the pressures for privatisation, social exclusion and corporate rule.

[Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University.]