Cuba Summit: Facts, Frustration And Hope

To no one’s surprise, the third National Summit on Cuba, held recently at the University of Tampa, yielded no surprises. It is the nature of such gatherings, whether they are called conferences, seminars or “summits.” That’s the way it (embar)goes.

There are the requisite Fidel Castro-denouncing banners and placards set up outside. On the inside, expect a myriad of literature promoting everything from doing business in Cuba to renouncing any effort to “reward” Castro’s dictatorship with tourism, trade and investments. The conferees typically range from politicians, former ambassadors and spokespersons for agenda-driven organizations to port officials, consultants and entrepreneurs. Cherry-pickings from history will be served. The rhetoric will include emotional, embargo-bashing, applause lines — as well as unyielding voices for continued recrimination and retribution. There’s never a fence to sit on.

This summit, which drew about 250 attendees, was ably moderated by Fox News Channel’s senior correspondent and host, Rita Cosby. To her credit, the occasional point-counterpoint disagreements never grew overly disagreeable. She also reiterated often that the summit regrettably failed — but not for lack of effort — to land a balanced representation of views among its more than two dozen presenters. Among those unable or unwilling to accept an invitation: members of Congress, the Bush Administration and the Cuban American National Foundation.

But the summit did land Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba. Some of his observations:

*It’s unrealistic — and wrong — to assume that American tourism will significantly change Cuba, averred Calzon. He took issue with the analogy of Western visitors influencing the erstwhile Communist bloc of Eastern Europe. “It was not American tourists enjoying Soviet ballets in Leningrad that brought down communism,” he said. Instead, stressed Calzon, it was the likes of Radio Free Europe and strong leaders, such as President Ronald Reagan, “who kept the pressure on.”

*”Private enterprise doesn’t exist in Cuba. The government owns all businesses, and Cuba’s military controls tourism.”

*”Americans have the right to travel to Cuba, but that right has to take account of other rights. For example, when an American tourist goes to Cuba and stays in a hotel that only Cuban prostitutes can go to, that’s shameful. That American tourist is subsidizing economic apartheid.”

*”I’m all for selling to Fidel Castro for cash. But selling to Cuba and getting paid are not the same thing. Ask Mexico. Cuba owes Mexico $380 million and has stopped payment in a dispute with (President Vicente) Fox. Castro is broke and owes billions. If the U.S. were to give Fidel Castro credits on exports, then watch your wallet. You will subsidize Castro.”

*”Cuba remains a rogue state. It supports terrorism.” And that’s reason enough, underscored Calzon, to keep the sanctions.

Attorney Robert Muse of Washington-based Muse & Associates, offered these embargo-related insights:

*”U.S. laws have consistently subordinated business interests to shifting political goals. Both Congress and the executive branch are fully complicit. It’s been the path of least resistance.”

*Muse also laid blame on corporate America. According to Muse, corporations couldn’t see beyond modest, short-term prospects of a “relatively small, unattractive market.” Moreover, they harbored largely unspoken “fears of a consumer boycott.”

Then there’s the take of Kirby Jones, president of Washington-based trade consultants, Alamar Associates:

*”Those who maintain that Cuba is but an out-of-date, leftover country which fanatically is clinging to a rigid and static state-controlled economy are simply misinformed, wrong or purposely misrepresenting the economic reality in Cuba to promote and achieve their own political agenda. Cuba has instead proven itself — more than once — to be willing to implement radical changes in the manner in which it manages its economy in order to adapt to a new world economic order.”

*”Basically nothing you see existed 10 years ago. What you see is a 10-year-old, economic experiment. Right or wrong, it’s charting its own course. The jury is still out on the mix.” Since the end of 2001, that mix has included Cuba’s purchase or signed contracts for approximately $1 billion of agricultural and food products from the U.S., added Jones. Cuba, it should be noted, is a cash-only customer for America.

*”Cuba is one of the most highly privatized countries in the world — if you define it as the state selling its assets to private investors. There are more than 340 joint-ventures now — from telecommunications with the Italians, oil exploration with the Spanish to office construction and citrus production with Israelis.”

*Cuba, said Jones, has created dozens of free-standing holding companies that operate “as free from day-to-day government control and oversight as any private-sector firm in any country in the world.” And they have but one shareholder — the government, points out Jones.

*While the aforementioned changes and others came about under Castro’s watch, Jones emphasized, don’t expect much deviation in the post-Castro period. “Castro has brought in an entire new generation of ministers, vice ministers and middle level officials and managers,” he said. “Alimport (Cuba’s powerful trade-negotiation agency), for example, is run by a 28 year old. All of this, initiated under Castro — is not dependent on Castro. This new generation will still be there the day Castro moves on.”

*”Fidel Castro has already implemented much of the very transition that some still say will come only after he no longer leads Cuba.”

And for historical context and geo-political projection, there is the perspective of Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana and current senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy:

*When the U.S. embargo was imposed, noted Smith, it was part of the U.S. “containment policy” and was “eminently sensible at the time.”

*”The Bush Administration has the most counterproductive, most illogical policy toward Cuba I’ve seen, and I’ve been watching it for 46 years

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