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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Reese Erlich, Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba

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[Welcome author, Reese Erlich, and host, Robert Farley, Assistant Professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky – bev]

InDateline Havana, Reese Erlich takes on the central paradox of American attitudes towards Cuba, which is that almost no one in United States, on the right or the left, has a realistic appraisal of the modern Cuban state. The misperceptions and outright distortions of the right have, without doubt, had greater policy import, and are probably held by a greater number of people. However, those on the left often overlook the shortcomings of the Revolution, and the problems afflicting Cuba today. Although Mr. Erlich does not spare those on the left (he was once in solidarity with them) he appropriately reserves most of his criticisms for the right wing interpretation of the Cuban Revolution. It is this interpretation, advanced by Cuban exiles and unrepentant Cold Warriors, that has structured US policy towards the island for the last fifty years.

The strongest aspect of the book is the extended discussion of the Cuba Lobby. The Cuban exile community has engaged in political activity against Cuba since the early 1960s; this activity has extended from a direct invasion of the island, to a campaign of terrorism, to concerted efforts to mold US policy. The last has been most successful. Extremist Cuban-American exiles no longer represent a majority of the Cuban population of the United States. Nevertheless, they wield outsize influence over US policy towards Cuba. Reese argues that the Cuban-American extremist exiles succeed not simply because of the electoral power they wield in Florida, but also because they are the only ones paying attention. In this, as in many situations, a small minority with intense preferences can impose its preferred policies on a majority that just doesn’t care very much.

Mr. Erlich’s account of Cuban political repression is largely fair. I found it a touch too credulous in parts– it’s unsurprising that a dictatorship does not create strong incentives for speaking truth to power, and I’m not convinced that the Cuban government’s resistance to the spread of cell phones was wholly the result of a capacity problem—but he constructively compares the current situation with that of the United States, its allies, and of Cuba prior to the Revolution. Mr. Erlich notes that the Revolution remains popular in substantial portions of the population, and that free elections would likely result in significant (if not, perhaps, majority) support for the current regime. That said, regimes confident of their popular support do not, by and large, need to resort to the oppressive measures that have characterized the Castro regime since the 1960s.

I was troubled by a few of the claims made by Reese; in particular, he cites reports that the United States engaged in biological warfare against Cuba on two separate occasions during the Cold War. These claims do not make up a substantial part of his argument, but nevertheless the evidence supporting them is exceedingly thin. Experts on biological warfare do not, by and large, accept these claims or list them in the history of the use of biological weapons. One footnote cites an article that is apparently no longer available on the internet. Again, these claims do not go to the heart of his argument, but it would still have been helpful either to excise them or back them up with more substantial evidence.

Mr. Erlich makes sophisticated sketches of a few potential transition paths. He warns against the belief that a US opening will undermine the regime in short order, noting that Canadian and European tourists and money have already flooded Cuba. Fair enough, but I suspect that American investment and tourism will dwarf the European and Canadian contributions in short order. I also suspect that this influx will have a significant economic and political impact on the Cuban state. Of course, any such impact depends on the United States relaxing a number of different restrictions on commerce and tourism, and the interest of the Obama administration in making big changes on Cuba policy remains in some question. In any case, Dateline Havana is an extremely useful primer on US-Cuban relations, and a strong contribution to the debate on the future of US policy towards Cuba.

[As a reminder, please take off-topic discussions to the previous thread. -bev]

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