Bitterness returns to D.C.-Havana relations
U.S. diplomat gives caustic speech; Castro responds in kind
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published December 30, 2005
HAVANA — After months of relative calm on the U.S.-Cuba diplomat front, the two nations have returned to the caustic rhetoric that has often characterized their relationship since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
The brief period of calm coincided with the replacement of James Cason, the tough-talking former top U.S. diplomat in Havana, with Michael Parmly, an experienced career diplomat who spent his first three months in Cuba quietly meeting with fellow diplomats, opposition figures and others.
But that changed when 54-year-old Parmly delivered a blistering speech in which he criticized Cuba for being out of step with the global shift toward democracy.
“The Cuban regime does not represent the people, nor does it have any interest in bettering their lives,” Parmly told a crowd of 100 gathered at his residence Dec. 10. “Rather, the regime is obsessed with self-preservation.”
In the speech marking International Human Rights Day, Parmly compared the practice of Cuban government supporters surrounding the homes of dissidents and hurling insults to tactics used by Nazi “brown shirts” and Ku Klux Klan members.
Cuban officials reacted with indignation.
“To compare Cuba to the worst fascism, and the worst racism of the United States … it is very hurtful,” said Randy Alonso, moderator of state television’s nightly “Round Table” program, which reflects the view of the Cuban government.
Last week, Castro referred to Parmly as “that little gangster,” and Cason as the “former gangster.”
He later called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “madwoman” after she reconvened a U.S. government commission whose stated goal is to assist Cuba’s transition to democracy.
“I am going to tell you what I think about this famous commission,” said Castro, who then used vulgar language to describe the group to the Cuban National Assembly.
The return of mutual enmity does not surprise diplomats and other observers who argue that officials in Cuba and the United States often appear more comfortable confronting each other than trying to resolve their differences.
While the two nations cooperate on everything from migration to anti-narcotics operations, experts say Castro goes out of his way to portray the U.S. as Cuba’s mortal enemy to tap into Cuban nationalism and rally support around his government.
By the same token, President Bush’s confrontational approach toward Castro garnered votes among some Cuban exiles in South Florida and may have helped secure his re-election in 2004.
Yet Bush also appears to hold a deep antipathy toward Castro, experts say.
“It goes beyond the benefit of the Florida vote,” said Mark Falcoff, a Latin American scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
The relationship between Cuba and the United States has been in decline since 2002, when Bush appointed Cason as the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.
Cason became the very public face of a toughened U.S. policy toward Cuba characterized by tightened sanctions and increased material support for the island’s dissident movement.
“I was a big fan of Mr. Cason,” said Alfredo Mesa, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful Miami-based exile group. “He was very effective. He had a very interesting way of delivering his message.”
Cason’s tactics were often unconventional.
During his three-year tenure in Havana, Cason placed a mock prison cell at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to highlight the plight of jailed Cuban opposition activists.
In December 2004, he infuriated Cuban officials by adorning the front lawn of the U.S. mission with holiday decorations that included Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman but also a sign with the number 75, a reference to the 75 Cuban dissidents jailed in 2003.
Cuban officials responded by placing a huge billboard outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana showing hooded and bloodied Iraqi prisoners being tortured by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Cason also was lampooned in a cartoon series that aired on Cuban national television.
In one episode, Cason — in a wizard’s hat — tries to change Cuba’s socialist system by waving a magic wand. Angry Cubans react by chasing Cason, who transforms into a rat as he sprints back to the U.S. diplomatic mission.
Falcoff argued Cason’s in-your-face style of diplomacy raised the profile of Cuba’s struggling dissident movement internationally. But others said Cason may have harmed the dissidents by provoking a backlash from Cuban officials.
“He made his support for the dissidents a bigger story than their own activities,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area policy group.
A specialist in postconflict situations with stints in Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Parmly has pledged to bring a lower profile to the job than his predecessor. But he vowed to continue implementing Bush administration policy, whose stated goal is to speed the end of Cuba’s one-party system of government.
“Cuba’s future will be determined by Cubans,” Parmly said in his Human Rights Day speech. “Our role is to support those working for democratic change.”