50 Years Later, Who Wins and Who Loses
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 Republican Institute.
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 administrative expenses.
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.