Now that the external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, in his new role in South Block, has set in motion a number of new initiatives in India’s neighbourhood, it is time he looked afresh at an area of Indian diplomatic interest which has been languishing for at least five years, if not more. Cuba has been dealt with routinely by several of Sinha’s predecessors as well as foreign secretaries, partly because relations between New Delhi and Havana have been good and devoid of problems.
But there has also been a tendency since the time of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime-ministership to play diplomatic football with Cuba. Rao, the wily diplomat with long experience in South Block, used Cuba to neutralize Washington when pressure from the first Clinton administration to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and cut off fissile material production was intense on his government. Rao announced a large shipment of rice as a gift to Cuba shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union made things extremely difficult for Fidel Castro — so difficult that many governments across the world even concluded, erroneously as it turned out, that Castro’s regime may not survive.
The rice was never meant to reach Cuba, given the difficulties in sending the shipment to the socialist island, which is under an American boycott that also applies to vessels calling at Cuban ports. Rao’s aides made no secret of the fact that in announcing the gift of rice, the prime minister was sending a message to the United States of America to back off and that, although the bi-polar world which India was comfortable with had collapsed, New Delhi was not entirely devoid of room for diplomatic manoeuvre.
Rao’s action hit its target and Washington got the message. This was obvious a year or so later when the Americans bargained with India on Cuba. Rao had his back to the wall in Geneva, where Pakistan was determined to pillory India with a resolution pulling up New Delhi at the United Nations human rights commission. Islama- bad had the support of the Organization of Islamic Conference, with a strength of 53 countries at that time, and many OIC members had votes in Geneva.
This made votes by the Western bloc very crucial for India. In the aftermath of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, human rights and self-determination were magic words in the West. And the Western bloc then was not what it is today, thanks to the American president, George W. Bush. The free-market democracies of Europe and the Americas were solidly behind the United States of America. Washington’s top diplomat in New Delhi went to South Block almost every day seeking a quid-pro-quo for American support for India in Geneva. The price which the Americans wanted the Indians to pay in Geneva was Indian support for a US resolution on human rights in Cuba.
In all the years since the UN human rights commission was set up, India had voted against the annual US resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record. The Americans had persuaded the new democracies in eastern Europe, once champions of Castro’s cause, to turn against Havana in Geneva. But getting India’s support against Cuba would have been a feather in the American cap. During intense discussions in South Block’s Conference Room, there were many voices in support of the US. It is doubtful if Rao would have ever agreed to reverse Indian support for Cuba. But what decisively tilted the balance against Washington’s efforts was a communication from Teheran. The Iranians, who appeared to be siding with Pakistan in public, told India in private that they would do their best in Geneva to ensure that the Pakistani resolution was not adopted. Which was what eventually happened: Iran and China worked on Pakistan to take the resolution off the agenda of the human rights commission. The rest is history.
It is reasonable to ask why all this should be brought up now. Why should India do anything about Cuba now'
The answer surfaced in Washington in the new year, on the eve of 2003, to be precise. On that day, the state department’s career personnel hurriedly — and somewhat gleefully — ordered that the name-plate on the door of a room occupied for a year by Otto Reich be taken down. Reich, a Cuban American whose ancestors were Jews from Austria, was handpicked by Bush in 2001 as assistant secretary of state for the Western hemisphere — including Cuba. He was for regime-change in Havana and takes the view that Castro is a terrorist, much the same as Saddam Hussein.
But the state department’s professional diplomats despised him. So did most of the Democrats who controlled the last senate and some Republicans. Castro’s aides described Reich as a fascist and a Nazi. Despite the personal interest of Bush in the appointment and the political interest of his brother Jeb — for whom Cuban American votes were crucial to be re-elected governor of Florida — Reich never got a chance to appear before the senate committee which was to confirm him.
Senator Christopher Dodd, the Democrat who chaired the sub-committee for Latin America, refused to even invite him to present his case for the appointment. But Bush did not give up. Defying the senate, he made a “recess” appointment, which a president is entitled to do to meet the exigencies of the administration. The appointee then holds the job for a year pending senate confirmation.
Reich’s “recess” term ended with 2002 coming to a close. The state department’s career diplomats, like their counterparts in South Block, detest outsiders. For them, Reich was an outsider. And the speed with which they took down Reich’s name-plate at year-end, even before anyone had any idea that Bush would drop the Cuban American from the job of assistant secretary in 2003, was reminiscent of how communist states promptly removed photographs and erased all traces of a deposed party general secretary in the heydays of the socialist bloc.
But the real surprise was only to come. In the week that followed the state department professionals’ attempts to obliterate every memory of Reich, Bush made a fresh nomination for the job of assistant secretary for the western hemisphere. Instead of renominating Reich for the job before a now-Republican-controlled Senate, the president chose Roger Noriega, a Mexican-American who is now the US ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Reich was instead offered a newly-created job in the national security council as adviser on Latin America. This post does not require senate confirmation. The near-unanimous view in Washington is that Reich’s new position lacks teeth and that his effectiveness in shaping the Bush administration’s Cuba policy as an adviser will be insignificant.
The fate of Reich offers a valuable lesson for Sinha if South Block takes a fresh look at its Cuba policy, as it should. Bush did not dump Reich as a matter of choice. He had no choice. There was no guarantee that the senate would confirm Reich even though it is now controlled by Republicans. So the White House concluded that their chosen nominee for an Iraq-style hardline Cuba policy was simply not worth a battle of attrition on Capitol Hill.
The change represents a huge victory for Castro within the American system. He added to it by allowing a well-known dissident, Oswaldo Paya, to travel to the US. Paya is the chief promoter of what is known worldwide as the Varela Project, a signature campaign within Cuba seeking a national referendum on civil liberties under Castro. Cuba’s regime is opposed to the Varela Project. But so are the Cuban exiles in Miami, who are uncompromisingly opposed to Castro and for whom Reich is a hero. The exiles say Paya is trying to work within the system by collecting signatures on a petition instead of trying to overthrow the Communists. By his surprising decision to let Paya travel abroad, Castro has succeeded in dividing the Cuban exile community in Miami, which is a huge and powerful anti-communist lobby in the US.
In spite of hiring lobbyists in Washington, in spite of working on the Indian-American community, India is still groping to find the right mix in influencing policy and decisions in Washington on issues of its concern. It is instructive to consider how Castro, notwithstanding all his handicaps in the US, including the absence of a diplomatic presence, manages to get the better of the US administration, which is trying to choke Cuba into renouncing Marxism and rejecting Castro.
Three years ago he managed to retrieve Elian Gonzales, a Cuban boy, from the clutches of the Cuban exiles in Miami, who wanted him to be given asylum after he was found on a raft on the waters off Florida. Last year, the Nobel peace prize winner and former president, Jimmy Carter, became the latest of several high-profile American visitors to Cuba. It is reasonable to assume that Castro is poised for more victories in his long, four-decade-plus fight against Washington. Much of the Nineties saw Castro’s isolation, what with the Soviet Union and the socialist states of eastern Europe going through a metamorphosis.
But that is changing. Castro has a firm friend in Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, who dislikes the US and resents what Washington is trying to do in Caracas. Now Brazil has elected its first leftist president, who is a friend of Castro.
Mexico has been steadfast in its friendship with Cuba, having once provided refuge for Castro when he was fighting the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. But under the president, Vicente Fox, there has been a shift. But this month, Fox’s foreign minister, who was the architect of that change, had to resign. Castro’s isolation in Latin America is clearly ending. And visits to Havana by leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin suggest that it would be a mistake to write off Castro in a world which is rapidly changing in terms of diplomatic alliances.
So, it is time for South Block to take a fresh look at Cuba. After all, India’s policies in Latin America have had little to show by way of results at any time except in ties with Castro, forged by Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter and his grandson.