Relations between the United States and Cuba stumble from obsession to obsession. A few years ago, the reigning obsession was the flow of illegal Cuban immigrants to American shores—a flow now stanched by tacit agreement between the two countries. This year’s obsession is the Helms-Burton Act, and more generally the single-minded U.S. pursuit of its economic embargo. This country’s latter-day anticommunist crusade is not only pushing Cuba to the wall, but also snarling U.S. relations with its closest allies.
The Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by the president during his re-election campaign, aims to block international investment in Cuba. It does this by asserting future rights over any property confiscated by Fidel Castro’s regime from corporations and individuals now located in the United States. The list of aggrieved parties is potentially endless—thereby casting serious doubts over the current climate of investment in the island. The law clearly runs counter to the leitmotif of trade liberalization preached so exuberantly by America nearly everywhere else in the world.
Meanwhile, Castro’s regime remains caught in its own internal contradictions. Cuba continues to maintain tight internal control, banking on its ability to absorb the social repercussions of the foreign investments that it is now so actively seeking. Will the regime succeed in transforming itself into a Caribbean Singapore or will the shock of foreign capital undermine long-standing political arrangements?
Some strains are already evident. Internal opposition organizations such as the Cuban Council and various groups of independent journalists are seeking reforms, though they have often been met with repression. On the U.S. side, hard-liners in the Cuban-American community push Washington for more severe measures against the regime, even at terrible cost to their compatriots in Cuba. At the same time, many exiles defy Washington’s ban against travel to Cuba—not only for personal reasons, but also to invest in small ventures.
But amid all these public gambits, a potentially more important development has passed unnoticed. Immediately after Clinton’s second inauguration, the administration launched a new policy trial balloon—a report titled “Support for a Democratic Transition in Cuba.” The document presents a scheme for a “transition government” in Cuba, following the model of other former socialist countries. Though the report was produced by the Agency for International Development, its preface carries the signature of President Clinton himself.
News media in the United States have largely ignored the document. Yet it represents the most ambitious public plan produced by any American administration to deal with Castro’s regime. It offers an inducement of eight billion dollars in investment funds—if Cuba installs a market-oriented transition government and holds multiparty elections within eighteen months....
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