50 Years Later, Who Wins and Who Loses
By Ann Louise Bardach
Sunday, January 11, 2009; B03
On New Year's Day, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul celebrated their
golden anniversary — marking a half-century since they brought
revolution to Cuba. On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will become the 44th
president of the United States. But to the Castros, who have struck out
the previous 10 occupants of the Oval Office, he will simply be the 11th
batter to step up to the plate.
In 2009, the 50-year, high-stakes showdown between Washington and Havana
is likely to culminate not in a final glorious duel but in resignation
born of fatigue. And there will be indisputable winners and losers —
mostly losers — as the Obama administration wades into the troubled
waters of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Here's a look at who ends up where.
Fidel Castro. He's the Cuban Marathon Man, refusing to surrender,
retreat or die. Mortally ill with intestinal disease, he hasn't been
seen in public since July 26, 2006. His illnesses and botched surgeries
would have felled any other mortal, but through sheer grit and
vengeance, he lives on.
Raul Castro. While Fidel remains the wizard behind the curtain, Raul is
front and center as Cuba's new head of state, and it will be under his
watch that the five-decade U.S. embargo enters its death spiral. Right
off, Obama has promised to lift the Bush administration's restrictions,
imposed in 2004, on Cuban Americans traveling and sending money to the
island. Next on the agenda will be allowing more Americans to visit and
leaving it up to the Cubans to be the heavies in keeping troublesome
exiles and pesky reporters like me away.
Although the Obama administration is neither able nor inclined to
rescind the embargo entirely, it can encourage its allies in Congress to
begin the process of dismantling it. With a new Brookings poll showing
an unprecedented majority (55 percent) of Cuban Americans opposing
continuation of the embargo, and 79 percent viewing it critically, the
administration will have the wind in its sails to act.
Russia and China. These two U.S. rivals have the entree to reestablish a
beachhead and, no doubt, a listening post in our backyard. Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese leader Hu Jintao have both been
feted in Havana recently, and all manner of trade deals are in the works.
The anti-Castro cottage industry. The eight years of the Bush presidency
were the golden goose for a cadre of ideologically hardline
entrepreneurs and their organizations. Although most exiles are
motivated by genuine conviction and human rights concerns, a segment has
also benefited richly from the protracted antagonism between the United
States and Cuba. In 2008 alone, the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) and the State Department doled out a whopping $45
million of taxpayer largess to groups charged with fostering democracy
in Cuba, such as the Center for a Free Cuba and the International
Among the losers here is Felipe Sixto, a former special assistant to
President Bush and the White House's liaison to exile leaders, who could
now be looking at a stretch in the pokey. Sixto was forced to resign
last March amid allegations that he had stolen nearly $600,000 of USAID
grant money while chief of staff at the Center for a Free Cuba and
during his later stint at the White House. In late November, Sixto was
charged with stealing from a federally funded program, and on Dec. 19,
he pleaded guilty and repaid $644,884.60 to the center, which had
reported the theft.
There was more startling news in a 2008 report by the Cuban American
National Foundation (CANF), the largest exile organization in the
country, which has moved to the political center from its former perch
on the right. According to the report, just 17 percent of the funds
given to exile groups between 1996 and 2006 actually made it to the
island. The other 83 percent was spent on salaries, travel and
Last summer, USAID intermittently halted some of its funding for Cuba
programs while it investigated the embezzlement at the Center for a Free
Cuba and suspicious credit-card spending at the Miami-based Grupo de
Apoyo a la Democracia (Support Group for Democracy), two leading
beneficiaries of government funds. But according to a 2008 report from
the Government Accountability Office (GAO), USAID renewed payments of
the frozen funds to both in September. That means that the Grupo de
Apoyo has hauled in about $10.9 million since 2000, according to the GAO
and USAID, while about $7.2 million has been doled out to the Center for
a Free Cuba since 2005.
Although the Bush administration has requested another $20 million to
fund Cuba programs for 2009, the Obama team will presumably slow the
gravy train or review its contents and recipients.
Radio and Television Marti. The International Broadcasting Bureau spends
around $35 million in taxpayer funds annually on these two stations,
which transmit Spanish-language broadcasts to Cuba. In 2006 and 2007,
the GAO found all manner of funny business at the Martis, which have
received roughly half a billion dollars over the past 20 years. Known in
Miami as "botellas" — slang for pork-barrel sinecures — the stations
have long operated as gift baskets for Miami's political elite. For a
period, the fathers of Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and
Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, who champion funding for the stations,
had their own shows on Radio Marti.
Because the Cuban government jams both stations' transmissions, Congress
approved $10 million in 2006 to buy TV Marti its own airplane from which
to beam its signal. Nevertheless, according to recent studies, listener-
and viewership have declined as the Martis' programming has become
progressively more shrill since their 1996 move from Washington to
Miami. Cubans are keen for uncensored news of the world and their
country, but they get all the screeds they need homegrown.
The 2007 GAO report found that the Martis had awarded more than $1
million in contracts to Miami's TV Azteca and Radio Mambi, renowned for
its deep bench of anti-Castro bloviators, to aid transmission, bypassing
federal contract-bidding procedures. More dubiously and perhaps in
contravention of the Marti charter, the two stations have been running
Marti's programming locally.
Bets are on that Obama's team will compel the Martis to professionalize
their content and their bidding practices. They may also choose to bring
the stations back under the umbrella of the Voice of America, to keep a
closer eye and ear on them.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Republican does most of the heavy
lifting and horse-trading in Congress to ensure that anti-Castro
programs are amply funded. He has been a lifelong satellite around
Planet Fidel: The two share a birthday, and Diaz-Balart is Castro's
nephew by marriage, his most ardent foe and his would-be successor. As
George W. Bush's quarterback, Diaz-Balart has dictated virtually all
policy and staffing regarding Cuba. That will not be the case come Jan. 20.
The Cuban Liberty Council. This fiercely hard-line organization will no
longer be arranging the place settings at the White House on Cuban
Independence Day. Replacing it will be the CANF and the Cuba Study
Group, an exile organization led by conservative but pragmatic
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is
likely to see its Cuban sails trimmed. OFAC's chief mandate is to
enforce sanctions against countries harboring terrorists. But a 2007
government study found that 61 percent of the office's investigations
since 2000 had been aimed at just one target: Cuba. Between 2000 and
2005, OFAC penalties for violations of the Cuban embargo represented
more than 70 percent of all the penalties the office imposed. In 2004, a
congressional hearing revealed that tax dollars earmarked for the war on
terrorism were spent on tracking unauthorized travelers to Cuba. At the
hearing, OFAC acknowledged that it had just four employees searching for
the funds of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as opposed to more than
20 full-time investigators charged with hunting down suspected violators
of the embargo. American taxpayers had picked up the tab for OFAC's
prosecution of a 75-year-old grandmother from San Diego who took a
bicycling trip to Cuba, an Indiana teacher who delivered Bibles and the
son of missionaries who traveled to the island to spread his parents'
ashes at the site of the church they'd founded 50 years before.
Luis Posada Carriles. The new year isn't looking especially bright for
the fugitive bomber and would-be Castro assassin, who has enjoyed safe
haven in Miami for the past year. The Obama Justice Department might
actually move on the evidence collected by the FBI and a federal grand
jury — seated for almost three years at a cost of millions of dollars
— reportedly tying Posada to a string of bombings in Cuba in 1997.
Carlos Valenciaga. Fidel Castro's secretary and longtime faithful aide,
who solemnly announced Castro's health crisis on television in 2006, has
fallen out of favor — and out of a job.
La Revolución. Although a significant deposit of oil was discovered last
year in Cuban waters, the country, one of the world's last Marxist
outposts, is still struggling to pay its bills. And until dividends
begin to trickle down to the kitchen table, the island will continue to
hemorrhage young people, who have despaired of seeing promised reforms.
An estimated 80,000 Cubans — many of the country's best and brightest
— have left for the United States since 2005.
That's why Havana's premier dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, thinks
that the revolution itself falls into the loser category. "Revolutions
don't last half a century," she wrote in a December posting. "They
always expire, trying to make themselves eternal. . . . Nothing will
manage to raise it from the tomb and bring it back to life. Let it rest
Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba Confidential" and the
forthcoming "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Washington and