Radio Havana Cuba interview with
Wayne Smith, ex-chief of US Interests Section in Havana
6th February, Washington, DC.
Wayne Smith was third secretary at the US embassy in Havana in the year leading up to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. When he decided to leave the US Foreign Service in 1982 because of fundamental disagreements with the Reagan Administration's foreign policy, he was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba.
Professor Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and runs the Cuba Program there with the objective of trying to bring about a more objective relationship between Cuba and the United States. He is also an adjunct professor at the John Hopkins University.
In this interview with Bernie Dwyer for Radio Havana Cuba, Wayne Smith gives a brief background to the rupturing of US/Cuba diplomatic relations in 1961 and his hope that better relations could be re-established when the Interests Sections were opened in Washington DC and Havana in 1977. However his hopes were dashed and he points out that, in his opinion, the present US administration is behaving in a totally destructive way towards opening dialogue between the two countries.
[Bernie Dwyer (BD)] As we are sitting here in the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC we are reminded that you have been involved with and have played quite a large role in developing Cuba/US relations.
[Wayne Smith (WS)] I have been involved for a very long time. I donít know if my role has been a large one but I have been involved for a long time. I was in Cuba as third secretary at the US embassy from 1958 until we broke relations in 1961 and I vowed as we sailed out of the harbor that night in January of 1961, I would be with the first group of American diplomats back in and 16 years later I was.
And I became the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. It was a very hopeful period. This was under Carter. We opened the Interests Sections - the Cuban Interests Section here in Washington and the US Interests Section in Havana Ė with the idea that they would be the channels of communication through which the two governments could discuss their disagreements, arrange for conferences and so forth to solve those disagreements and move forward to a more normal relationship.
[BD] What was the atmosphere like in the US embassy in Havana in those years leading up to the Cuban Revolution?
[WS] I arrived in Cuba in 1958 and, of course, it was very exciting. Castroís forces were moving up the island. It was perfectly apparent as of summer 1958 that Fidel Castro was going to win. Then January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and within a few days, Castro was in Havana. It was very exciting, a very optimistic time for Cuba. Castro was going to bring social justice and a better way of life for Cubans and we were hopeful that we could have a decent relationship but there were too many things in the way. It was too difficult with Cubaís move to bring about social justice, inevitably some American companies were expropriated and nationalized, which didnít help relations between the two governments.
Then Castro had the idea of completing the work of Bolivar and Jose Marti. In effect, as he often put it, turning the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of Latin America and encouraging other revolutions. That also caused problems between the two governments. And so we broke relations but I will say that inevitably those issues moved away from the forefront and by 1977 with the Carter administration coming in, it seemed that we might be able to engage and to have a productive dialogue and begin to solve some of those problems and have a more normal relationship.
And I think it would have been possible. Africa got in the way to some extent. The Cubans went into to Angola but then Angola became independent. We had no objection to Angola being independent so why not move ahead with the relationship.
But Iím afraid that the atmosphere was soured here in Washington and there were too many people who said: ďNo, no the Cubans have stabbed us in the back, we tried to improve relations, they went into AfricaĒ and so forth. The Cubans did go in but on the other hand the United States was also there in Angola with the other side. So it was not a matter of some bad faith on Cubaís part.
We then come to the Reagan administration and Cuba again becomes the evilest part of the evil empire and no possibility of really improving relations. But I will say for the Reagan administration that at least they maintained some dialogue and discussed problems when they needed to be discussed.
I left the Foreign Service in July of 1982. I couldnít take any more. I had seen too many misrepresentations on the part of my government so I left and turned to what I am doing now. But even after I left, there were discussions between the Interests Section and the Cuban government. There was some degree of communications kept open and certainly that was true under the Clinton administration.
But then we come to the Bush administration and all that ends. Now there is virtually no dialogue at all. On the contrary the Bush administration has said that its objective is to bring down the Castro government and that it will not accept any successor regime. So if Castro was to die tomorrow and be replaced by his brother Raul Castro or by some collective leadership perhaps headed by his brother, we have decided that we wonít invade perhaps but everything short of military force to bring down the Cuban government and we do such silly things.
Now we have instructed an American hotel in Mexico City to kick out the members of a Cuban delegation there to meet with Americans to discuss the energy situation. Where do we get of telling a hotel in Mexico that it canít take Cubans guests and for a while we were not going to play baseball with the Cubans? We are behaving in an utterly childish way and one would wonder where would all this end. Itís really distressing. Itís humiliating to see the measures our government is taking and the extremes to which it is going.
[BD] Do you think that George W. Bush is taking a leaf from his fatherís book? How Bush the father behave when he was president?
[WS] No, I donít really think that George W. Bush is following in the footsteps of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush. The first Bush administration had its problems to be sure and I often disagreed with decisions of that administration. But look at Iraq. We had the first Gulf War and they had the possibility to invade Iraq. The Iraqi Army had been defeated. It was retreating pell mell up towards Baghdad, but very carefully they reasoned that if we go then we really are bogged down. Itís just not worth it. We shouldnít invade. We will then have the Iraqi people against us and that would simply generate more opposition to our aims in the rest of the Arab world so, very intelligently, they did not invade.
George W. Bush did invade, very unwisely, but not following in his fatherís footsteps. His father would not have done it. I think in part that may be why George W. Bush did. His father didnít do it but he by golly will. He will show his father a thing or two and he will invade and look where we are now.
[BD] Is the totally disproportionate influence that the Cuban American community in Miami has had over successive US administrations regarding US policy on Cuba just as strong over President George W. Bush?
[WS] I donít think at this point that it is the Cuban American community in Miami that controls our policy. They donít have the votes for one thing. It is no longer a monolithic community. There are as many Cuban Americans down in Miami now who favor engagement as are opposed. Yes, you have this group of extreme hardliners who want no engagement whatsoever with Cuba. They donít want any contact, not even any discussions. They are not really the majority. But George W. Bush believes this himself. I think itís an ideological thing with him. He can use the Cuban American community to support his policies and so forth but I believe that even if the Cuban American community at this point was moving in a more moderate direction, George W. Bush would not be. Itís a conviction of his. He has this strange way of reaching conclusions that arenít well founded but then being isolated from reality and just following along with the decisions he makes on the basis of these conclusions irrespective of everything to the contrary.
[BD] What do you think is going to happen with the Bush plan for a so-called transition to a free Cuba? Do you think it is a paper tiger?
[WS] In a way, I do. I think itís absurd and incredibly arrogant. He sits down and he comes up with this commission and many of the hard-line Cuban Americans come up with this plan to bring about Cubaís transition to democracy even including things like ďwe are going to inoculate all the school children and make the busses run on timeĒ.
Cuban school children are inoculated now. They donít need the presidentís commission to bring that about. Itís extremely arrogant and unrealistic. Itís unrealistic in the sense that they donít have the means or measures for bringing it about. They talk about bringing about the transition to democracy. They talk about bringing down the Castro government in the transition to democracy. How are they going to bring down the Castro government?
Well, they talk about restrictions on travel, which will reduce Cuban revenues. Now we have tighter restrictions and itís very, very difficult for Americans to travel. Itís especially hard on Cuban Americans. They could visit once every year and now itís once every three years and there are no emergency provisions so if you visit your mother in June and you come back to the States and you hear in September that your mother is dying, you canít go to be at her bedside. You can go and visit her grave in three years but you canít go to be with her in her last hours.
Itís inhumane really and it causes suffering for Cuban Americans. But has that reduced Cuban revenues appreciably? No, because there are more Canadians and Europeans and Venezuelans and so forth traveling than ever. Cuba had more tourists last year than it had the year before and it has more this year than last year, so it hasnít cut into revenues at all.
The other thing, which is almost laughable, is to say is that they are going to increase Radio Marti and TV broadcasting. Radio Marti has been broadcasting for almost twenty years now and it hasnít had the slightest effect on Cuban public opinion. The Cubans are tired of propaganda. They recognize propaganda when they see it or hear it and tend to turn it off. TV Marti has been broadcasting for a long time but it has never been seen in Cuba. Now they are talking about getting an airplane and having it circle off the coast and transmit the signals but it would have to transmit from 5.30 to 7 in the morning. Wow, there will be a lot of people up to watch and even if they did watch, it wouldnít have any more effect than Radio Marti, so thatís absurd.
The other thing they have, I guess to break this information blockade they talk about is this electric sign on the US Interests Section in Havana, sort of like in Times Square, blinking around the building with passages from Martin Luther King. Well, that would be fine but also from people who are very hostile to the Castro regime. Thatís going to make any difference? Cubans are not going to sit around watching a sign. I mean thatís a clear signal of intellectual bankruptcy that we would come up with such an idea.
And then the other measure to bring about the end of the Castro regime is to increase support to Cuban dissidents. Well, I have worked with many of the dissidents for a long time who would like to bring about change, who would like to see Cuba move towards what they call, a more open society and so forth but they are not in favor of trying to bring down the government and they are totally opposed to US policy.
They say that ďyour policy is an impediment to change. It doesnít help at all. The more you threaten our government, the more defensive it will become. So you could do far more by beginning a dialogue easing tensions and letting Americans travel down there. That would be helpful. What you are doing is not helpful at allĒ.
So, these measures they talk about are absurd. The policy isnít going to work. We are not going to break down the Castro government so we donít achieve the objectives. On the contrary, we work against what should be our own interests and objectives in this. [BD] What would you see as a recipe for good relations between Cuba and the United States?
[WS] We should recognize that the Cold War is over. Cuba represents no threat whatsoever to the United States. Why not indicate to the Cubans that we are prepared to begin a dialogue to discuss our disagreements, and we do have disagreements, and see if we canít find ways of resolving them, maybe step by step. Begin the dialogue. Lift the travel controls and allow our Americans to travel down there and allow Cubans, to the extent that it is possible, to travel up here.
We have this Latin American Studies Association meeting in Puerto Rico coming up and the US State Department wonít give visas to the Cuba scholars to come up to the meeting. This is stupid. We have always insisted that this exchange of people is the best way of getting our message across and furthering our own interests. In this case, we seem utterly blind to that.
So let Americans talk and as this dialogue begins to reduce tensions and to
resolve some of the tensions between us, we can begin to lift the embargo on a
step by step basis. But you canít begin to make progress that would be in the
interests of the United States so long as you will not talk; you will not have a
dialogue; you insist that you are going to bring the other government down but
you donít have any means of doing that. Its ludicrous, itís embarrassing. As an
American, when I look at our Cuba policy, I feel humiliated.
Thanks to journalist Bernie Dwyer of the
Radio Havana Cuba English Department
for sharing this interview transcript.