(Montgomery Advertiser) My first trip to Cuba ended a few days ago. I thought I’d offer a couple of untutored observations.
The meeting was a bi-national, U.S.-Cuban conference on “the way forward.” It was at a very high level with some of the best experts from both countries. And then there was me: no expert at all in these matters.
My paper was on ethnic lobbies. To make a long academic paper short, I found that national policy gives little weight to ethnic groups over time.
After the American war for independence, Federalists feared French and Irish revolutionaries in our midst. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 enabled the roundup and deportation of spies.
Nobody was deported. But several hundred resident French and Irish-Americans were arrested and the shameful law remains on the books.
After the Civil War, armed Irish-Americans crossed into Canada, trying to provoke an Anglo-American war. Though many died on both sides of the frontier, American policy never changed.
After World War I, Anglophiles lobbied for the League of Nations. Others pushed for its rejection. In the end, no lobby made even a dent on America’s patrician elders in the Senate, who, all along, were bent on keeping faith with George Washington’s famous admonition to “avoid entangling alliances.”
In the run-up to World War II, neutrality was widely supported by many ethnic groups. There were some ethnic interventionist importunings. But most agreed with those Norwegian Americans who, even after the Nazis occupied Oslo, wanted to stay out of war by a margin of more than 10 to one.
Concerns regarding ethnic American disloyalty were common in the past 100 years or so. There was the shameful round up of Japanese Americans. But, in fact, there has never been a Japanese-American spy.
No German-American was ever arrested for spying after 1939.
In the Cold War, hysterias about spies among us were too common, and spies aplenty were arrested. But in my research, not a single native-born “ethnic” American spy was ever named, much less arrested. Russian spies, Chinese spies and Cuban spies were “sent” agents, or “residents,” or, more usually, sympathizers with majority ethnic backgrounds.
Suspicions of ethnic disloyalty were common about Muslims before 9/11. But Arab-Americans were involved in less than 25 percent of 400 terror cases over the past 10 years.
In contrast, Montgomery’s Southern Poverty Law Center identifies thousands of separate American “nativist,” “patriot” and “racial supremacist” terror groups with more than 300,000 dues-paying members. In the past decade, 30,000 of their fellow Americans were targeted, specifically the president, Cabinet officers, military, non-Christians and just ordinary citizens. American terror groups brag on hundreds of “successes” each year. Prosecutions are surprisingly few, and investigatory resources appear to be paltry.
Non-Americans in Havana asked me why our country has committed so much to eliminate terrorism and yet still support terrorists who target Castro. I knew little about it. But it turns out that when American Catholics wanted to go to see the Pope in Havana this past March, their charter plane company was blasted into bankruptcy. It was the most recent of a litany of lethal events.
In 1976, a Miami-based CIA contract officer name Louis Posada blew up a Cuban passage airplane, killing all 73 on board. In the late 1990s, Posada blew up a fashionable number of hotels and restaurants in Havana, including the one I stayed in on this trip. In yet another plot to kill Castro, Posada was arrested in Panama with several pounds of C4 in 2000.
Louis Posada is living his last years in comfort in Miami and is a podium fixture at political fundraisers.
U.S. legislation is designed to discourage travel to and make it hard to do business in Cuba. And it is. By the time I secured a license from the Treasury, a visa from the Cubans, an impossibly difficult space on an iffy charter and a room in a hotel that is forbidden to take an American credit card, there were still four hours of clearances in punishing lines in a segregated terminal designed to dissuade even the determined.
And, by law, you can’t bring back a thing from Cuba — no rum, cigar, doll, t-shirt, nothing. I have a special global entry pass to get through U.S. Customs. It worked. But the rest of the plane coming into Miami required another four hours to get through Customs.
The old days of trying to do Castro in and to break the Cuban economy have tottered past their sell-by date. To be sure, the hardline Cuban ethnic lobby has its supporters. Susan Purcell came recently to the Alabama World Affairs Council and spoke in favor of the embargo of Cuba. To me, the policy is self-defeating.
Brian Latell spoke to the Alabama World Affairs Council in the fall of 2012, noting that “Cuban Americans are no longer monolithic. There are Cuban-Americans groups and institutions that represent nearly the entire spectrum of opinion.” Latell points out that Cuba is not isolated, except from the United States.
And Cuban-Americans are increasingly for engagement, not isolation, of Cuba. In Florida, the GOP again stood for the embargo in courting Miami and the swing vote in one of the two most important swing states. Cuban Americans, in record numbers, for the first time ever, went the other way.
A new foreign policy team is forming up in Washington. Sen. John Kerry sponsored a bill to allow unfettered travel to Cuba. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel is said to be harbor doubts regarding the trade embargo of Cuba. A “reset” is coming.
James A. Nathan is Khalid bin Sultan Eminent Scholar in political science at Auburn University Montgomery and executive director of the Alabama World Affairs Council.