David Sirota is The New York Times bestselling author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government—And How We Take It Back , (Crown, 2006). He is the co-chair of the nonpartisan Progressive States Network . This commentary originally appeared on WorkingForChange.
A few years ago, I read the landmark biography of Fidel Castro by New York Times reporter Tad Szulc. That by no means makes me a Castro or Cuba expert—but it does hammer home to even the casual reader that Castro's primary tool in holding onto power has been his ability to pump up the threat of what he portrays as U.S. imperial ambitions and a supposedly corresponding threat to Cuban sovereignty. His basic line has been, "Keep me in power and the Revolution going so as to prevent the U.S. from invading, or exerting total control over Cuba."
This manipulative message is nationalist to its core—he is saying that Cuba can only hold onto its distinct cultural, historic and economic roots if America is prevented from overrunning the country. Now, with news of Castro's illness and feverish talk that his reign may finally be ending, the question of how to deal with and debunk his message becomes critical to whether or not we will see a democratic Cuba.
Let's be clear: Castro is a dictator who has used horrific acts to hold onto power, and a democratic Cuba is in the long-term interests of the Cuban people, the United States and the world—that is not up for debate. But whether you agree with Castro's fundamental nationalist message about U.S. imperial ambitions, he has been extremely effective in using it to hold on to power. And that begs a very important question: Why is the Bush administration walking right into his trap?
In Wednesday’s New York Times, for instance, you see the Bush administration publicly bragging that once Castro dies, America is planning for a full-on takeover of Cuba. President Bush on Thursday issued a statement saying, “We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba.” That is the kind of declaration easily portrayed by anti-democratic forces in Cuba as no-holds-barred diplomatese for the very imperialism Castro has been warning his people about for the last half century.
In another story, we discover that the administration is now announcing that if Castro dies, "the United States would also send special monitors and advisers to Cuba in the weeks after a full transition began." Clearly, this information could easily be spun to confirm Castro's own message. And it is especially stupid and destructive to our long-term goals and credibility when—at the same time our government is haughtily strutting around making these proclamations—the White House is also saying "it viewed attempts by Venezuela or other countries to influence the transition in Cuba as unwarranted intervention."
In political campaigns, the worst thing a candidate can do is publicly walk into his or her own stereotype. If, for instance, there are unconfirmed rumors that a candidate is a philanderer and too-slick by half, the worst thing that candidate can do is get caught philandering and then lying about it, because it confirms the negative suspicions the public may have already had. If there are suspicions out there that a candidate waffles or stands for nothing, the worst thing that candidate can do is publicly waffle on a big issue—think John Kerry's "I was for it before I was against it" line on Iraq.
The same thing goes for the situation with Cuba. The stupidest thing American officials can do is publicly reinforce Castro's portrayal of America’s ambitions. By so doing, they are confirming the negative suspicions that many Cubans must harbor, considering they've been hearing about America’s imperialist designs repeatedly for the last 50 years.
Our government is quite literally giving Castro—if he survives—and those around him ammunition to argue for continuing the Castro regime: "See, we told you so, so keep us in power, because we have been right." Put another way, the administration's arrogance could very well imperil a transition to democracy in Cuba because it is very publicly giving antidemocratic forces in Cuba a rhetorical weapon to hang onto power.
When it comes to national security, Iraq has shown what the definition of "strength" is not: It is not a politician sitting in a comfortable air-conditioned Washington office who glibly places American troops in danger by ordering invasions halfway around the globe. Similarly, the situation in Cuba should remind us that "strength" is not a politician puffing out his chest and pigheadedly walking into the very caricatures our enemies have been peddling, potentially alienating indigenous populations that may have otherwise been sympathetic to our goals. That's what's called "weakness"—and the more such weakness is depicted as "strength" by politicians and the media elite, the worse off America will be.