As the years passed, Zamora had a change of heart. He decided that violence was wrong and telling Cubans how to run their country wasn’t the answer.
“You cannot do that. That’s never going to succeed.”
“I mean, it’s almost a billion dollars,” said Zamora, a lawyer. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a lot of money in the United States, but that’s not the point. The point is, what have we done?”
Some others agree, saying it’s not the money – or the idea of promoting freedom - that bothers them the most. It’s the strategy.
Josefina Vidal, a senior official at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in Havana, said U.S. regime-change programs have had minimal impact in Cuba and “have no future” on the island.
“Relations between the two countries in many other areas will continue,” she said. “But while these programs are maintained, the conditions persist for incidents and frictions to arise, rarifying the bilateral climate and hindering the possibilities of developing a respectful relationship between the two countries.
“If the U.S. is really interested in establishing a respectful relationship with Cuba, it must end these programs.”
USAID operates Cuban democracy programs under Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The act imposes international sanctions against the Cuban government and seeks a transitional government that would lead to “a democratically elected government in Cuba.”
It bars the president from ending U.S. sanctions unless he decides that Cuba has met a series of requirements. These include:
- Agreeing to free and fair elections within 18 months after a transitional government takes power.
- Forming a government that does not include Fidel or Raul Castro.
- Legalizing all political activity.
- Dissolving its state security forces.
- Releasing all political prisoners and opening prisons to human rights investigators.
- Allowing multiple independent political parties equal access to the media.
- Ending jamming of Radio and TV Martí broadcasts.
- Taking steps to return property seized from U.S. citizens after the 1959 revolution.
Cuba expert Phil Peters regards the Helms-Burton law as counterproductive.
“Paradoxically… in the very definition of what a democratic government should be, it says it has to be a government that does not include Fidel or Raul Castro. So in the very act of defining democracy, we say that there's certain candidates excluded from any part or participation in government,” Peters said.
“The net result of that is that it makes anything the United States says, from the Cuban government's point of view, a threat to security because in fact we are trying to change the form of government and, of course, that leads them to tune out everything else that we might say, legitimate as it is, about human rights practices.”
That approach accomplishes nothing, said Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center in Arlington, Va.
“There are grievous human rights violations in Saudi Arabia…in China and Vietnam, but it's never occurred to the United States to treat those countries the way we treat Cuba.
“We would be in a much stronger position if we had a more normal relationship. It's not a simple proposition to get there because we're so dug in after 50 years,” Peters said.
“The Cuba issue's one of the clearest examples of the colossus of the north trying to exercise its will over a small island nation,” he said. “The Cold War is long over. Cuba’s not involved in promoting revolution in other parts of the world. Substantive changes are taking place in Cuban society…and the United States still refuses to change a policy that has been in place for well over 50 years. It's one of the great dinosaurs of the Cold War era, and it's so counterproductive.”
A 2011 book, "That Infernal Little Cuban Republic,” recalls an exchange between then-President Lyndon Johnson and J. William Fulbright, then-chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Johnson said: “I’m not getting into any Bay of Pigs deal. No, I’m just asking you what we ought to do to pinch their nuts more than we’re doing.”
Fulbright recommended economic sanctions.
“Nut-pinching has been U.S. policy ever since,” wrote Lars Schoultz, author of the book.
In the 1980s, former Army Gen. Alexander Haig offered to use force to oust Fidel Castro. He told then-President Reagan:
“You just give me the word and I’ll turn that f------ island into a parking lot.”
Instead, Reagan authorized the creation of Radio Martí and refused to deal with the Cuban government, telling a reporter, “If they’d ever like to rejoin the civilized world, we’d be happy to help them. But not under the present circumstances.”
In 2003, then-President George W. Bush created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. He said he was preparing for "the happy day when Castro's regime is no more..."
Roger Noriega, then-assistant secretary of state, summed up the administration's view: “The United States.....will not accept a succession scenario.”
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was first chair of the commission. He issued the group's first report in May 2004. The 456-page tome showed U.S. officials were planning Cuba's future down to the last detail.
For instance, the report said, if Cuba's transitional government requested help, the U.S. government was prepared to:
- Provide dam safety training, in Spanish
- Help upgrade airport lighting and signs
- Simplify the sale of refurbished U.S. locomotives to Cuba
- Help map coral reef systems and assess fish habitat
- Train park managers
- Give advice on how to add trails and other infrastructure to prime bird watching spots
- Treat and control solid waste
But until Cuba surrendered, U.S. officials refused to deal with the socialist government or talk to Fidel Castro. Bush explained:
“What’s the point of talking to him? All I’d tell him is what I’m telling you, to give the people the freedom that they want. And then you’ll see the United States do exactly what we should: Go down and lift those people up.”
Bush’s sentiment seemed to be that the U.S. had an obligation to “civilize” Cuba, Schoultz said in an interview.
Cuban-Americans didn’t identify with the “civilizing” mission, but supported the democracy programs.
“These Cuban Americans have not a bit of interest in a civilizing mission,” said Schoultz, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “They are using democracy promotion programs as a vehicle to strengthen the government's critics. Their goal is to overthrow the Cuban government.”
Cuban officials managed to stay in power even after Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and dropped out of sight.
Hoping to seize the moment, Bush pushed Cuban democracy spending to a high of $44 million in 2008.
Among those receiving money was USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives or OTI, which specializes in rushing to hotspots and fragile nations around the world to promote democracy, peace and reconciliation.
Public records don’t make clear how it spent all its Cuba money. At least some of it went to a Washington, D.C., contractor called Creative Associates International for a program called, “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society.”
The project was designed to “expand the network of independent actors working together toward positive, democratic change on the island.”
|USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.|
Records show USAID in 2008 agreed to give Creative $6.5 million, the first installment of what was to be a three-year $15,535,979 contract to carry out the sensitive OTI operation. The mission involved establishing a secret base in Costa Rica that would support democracy activists in Cuba.
OTI had rushed to launch its Cuba program in 2007 because U.S. officials thought the country was on the verge of change. A program document stated:
“With President Fidel Castro’s resignation after 49 years in power and the recent selection of Raul Castro as his successor, Cuba is, at the very least, undergoing a symbolic transition that might signal a broader democratic political transition in the near future...”
Contract documents show that Creative eventually received around $11 million, falling $4,365,308 short of the $15.5 million contract amount.
Records also show that the company shut down its Costa Rica office, but neither Creative nor USAID has ever explained why or acknowledged the existence of the operation.
Despite the blatant lack of transparency and accountability, most lawmakers have been reluctant to tinker with the democracy programs for fear of losing votes in Florida, Schoultz said.
“Once they created this ‘democracy’ weapon in the early to mid-1990s, it became almost impossible to pry it out of their hands - Florida's 29 electoral votes are too important,” he said.
In recent years, however, the Cuban-American vote has lost some of its importance in the presidential race.
Obama’s victory was declared in 2012 “before the votes in Florida were even fully counted,” Kornbluh said. “You have a complete change in the Cuban-American community in Florida with the ‘historicos’ of the Miami community… coming to a generational end of their influence.”
John McAuliff, director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, is convinced that better relations with Cuba are possible.
“I think we're at one of those tipping points. The president and the secretary of state have to decide whether they want to be the historic figures who bring about a normal relationship between the two countries. It's clear that the Cubans are ready to have that happen. They're ready to have negotiations without any preconditions. They're ready to have the kind of relationship that the United States has with Vietnam, with China.”
For now, though, the low-intensity U.S.-Cuba conflict rages on and there’s no end in sight.
Some $30 million or so is expected to be set aside for Cuban democracy programs over the next two years.
The federal government spends even more money on Radio and TV Martí – some $700 million since 1983.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting operates Radio and TV Martí from its headquarters in Miami. It has intensified its efforts to promote Internet freedom and reach Cubans on mobile phones and social networking sites over the past two years.
One project is a $2 million effort that involves sending millions of text messages to cell phone users in Cuba and blocking Cuban efforts to jam Radio and TV Martí.
Many other U.S. government projects are in the works. None of them involve talking to the Cuban government to try to settle the more than half-century-long grudge match.
“President Obama was right when he was campaigning in 2007 and said that Cuba policy's been 50 years of failure, we need to try something new,” LeoGrande said. “The problem is, he hasn't really been able or willing to spend the political capital to really try something new. So policy today is not fundamentally different than it has been since 1959. The goal is regime change. Obama doesn't want to do it by force. He wants to do it by gradual coercion and nudging Cuba to change in the way that the United States would like it to change. But he's no more willing than George Bush was to normalize relations with Cuba until Cuba changes in the way we want it to.”
Despite the hardline policy, the Cuban government has not collapsed.
“The Cuban government today is as consolidated and stable as it's ever been, and U.S. policy now is stuck in a situation where we won't talk to them until they change. We have no leverage and no influence over their future,” LeoGrande said.
He considers America’s Cuba policy to be “an abject failure.”
“In 1959, the Eisenhower administration decided that the Cuban regime had to be overthrown and virtually every president since then has stuck with that basic policy.”
He said his closest friends – men he fought with during the Bay of Pigs invasion – haven’t left his side, even if they disagree with some of his views.
“My real friends remain friends,” he said.