On Day One

Remarks, as delivered, by Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, USA (Ret), the Visiting Pamela Harriman Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on 26 September 2008, at the Conference on "The United States and Cuba: Rethinking Engagement" sponsored by the Institute for the Study of the Americas.

Thank you for that very kind introduction. And thank you to Lou Pérez and to Shelley Clarke and to all the wonderful, warm people at the University of North Carolina and at the Institute for the Study of the America's for such a superb and warm welcome that we have all experienced. And for an extremely well-run conference.

I must do a little due diligence at the start and say that I am a lifelong Republican. I'm a conservativeâ€â€an Edmund Burke conservative. Not one of the radicals such as we have in this country calling themselves conservatives today.

Being a Burkeian conservative means I believe that the best that has been thought and said and done in human history should be conserved and that it should be amended and altered only when there is positive practical proof that it should be.

Please remember these points about me while I speak what I am about to speak. I place my patriotism and my devotion to my country beneath no one's. After 31 years in the U.S. Army, I feel I have the bona fides to say that.


The Beijing Olympics are over.

The world came to China, some of its athletes broke a great many records, none succumbed to environmental poisoning, and the world went home again.

All this in the world's most populous and in many respects still most coercive communist nation.

Butâ€â€a nation of 1.3 billion souls alive with capitalism.

Destructive, invasive, corrosive, avaricious, polluting, corrupting capitalism. But capitalism.

Of course I must admitâ€â€again, there has to be due diligence hereâ€â€that in its overall injurious effects it may not be as bad as American capitalism!

A little after the Beijing Olympics, on Saturday, September 6, the U.S. soccer team went to Cuba.

We won, one to zip.

The defeated host was another communist country but, alas, only with 11 million soulsâ€â€and, as geostrategic realities would have it, those 11 million souls occupied an island that lay at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico along sea lines of communication that are critical to the U.S. Gulf Coast and all its wealth and productive and shipping capacity. And oh yes, it also lies only 90 miles from the coast of the sometimes U.S. state of Florida.

And compounding matters terribly, none of those 11 million souls, reportedly at least, was awash in capitalism. At least not the destructive, invasive, corrosive, avaricious, polluting, corrupting capitalism of China.

Or of America.

Cuba's capitalism, such as it is, is slow, creeping even, and aimed at better food production, attracting foreign investment, making money for the military, refurbishing Habana Vieja, and NOT corrupting la revolución.

The U.S.-Cuba soccer game, I should add, took place between two hellacious hurricanes: Gustav which had just passed through doing extensive damage to Cuba in its western provinces and on the Isle of Youth, and Ike which was at the time lurking in mid-Atlantic getting ready to strike the Dominican Republic, Haitiâ€â€poor, poor Haitiâ€â€and then Cuba.

The soccer game was the first visit to Cuba by the U.S. team in 61 years. And as the only goal scorer in the game, U.S. player Clint Dempsey, said, "Since the day we got here, everyone has been great. It wasn't bad in any way. Everyone was nice to us and respectful. It wasn't a nasty game. It was just a hard-fought, good game."


"It was just a hard-fought, good game."

Would that we could describe our relations with the rest of the world in that way, all the time. No matter who is the ultimate winner.

And to this "hard-fought, good game" those from the U.S. who wanted to root for their team had to come clandestinely.

As the Washington Post reported, "Several American fans entered the country without permission from the US government, using a third country as a travel hub. As long as their passports do not get stamped in Cuba", the Post continued, "…their previous whereabouts will not be detected by US Customs. To remain anonymous, they arrived at the stadium in olive military caps, sunglasses and U.S. bandannas covering their faces."

Wow again!

Americans simply poured into Beijing; they had to sneak into Havana.

What is wrong with this picture?

Well, besides being utterly unconstitutional, blatantly ridiculous, and stupendously stupid, it is costing America immensely.

It is costing us in economic terms, national security terms, and just plain common sense terms.

Worse, it is doing this because our policy toward this island nation is not dictated by economic or security interests but by domestic interests.

And these domestic interests are so narrow and so shallow that if one lived on Mars and was looking down on earth, one must think the American people the dumbest on earth for allowing them to prevail.

And now, now that we have more extensive damage from the second hurricane to ravage Cuba, Ike, we have compounded our folly, offering $100K initially and, then to compound our perfidy even further, $5 million total with so many strings attached that we knew the Cuban government would refuseâ€â€which, I suspect, is what we wanted in the first place.

Lately, and "lately" means the Cheney/Bush administrationâ€â€note the order in which I describe this administration, pleaseâ€â€el coloso del norte has not been doing too well in its own hemisphere:

We've been tossed out of Venezuela.

We've been tossed out of Bolivia.

We're despised in Argentina.

Nicaragua looks favorably on Russia's move into Georgia.

Honduras and Guatemala hold their noses when they deal with us.

The Chinese are going to drill for oil within 60 miles of the coast of Florida; Russia just landed Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers in Venezuela and Russia contemplates building a space launch facility in Cuba; PETR VELIKY (PETER THE GREAT), a nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruiser, and three escorts left Severomorsk on Monday headed for joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy; and an international consortium, led by Dubai Ports World, plans on building the largest container processing facility in the Western Hemisphere in Mariel, Cuba. Its throughput capacity will rival or surpass Los Angeles.

In addition, in Moscow today, the Russians gave $1 billion (US) for military aid to Chavez. He's already purchased $2-3 billion of Su-30 Sukhoi fighter planes, M-17 helicopters, and thousands of assault rifles – some of which may have gone to the FARC in Colombia.

We're barely tolerated in Mexico and puzzled over in Brazil, the real looming giant of America del sud. In fact, the best leader in the Western Hemisphere, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, just ignores us most of the time because to him, I'm sure, we are indecipherably inept.

The U.S. record in Latin America is just short of an abysmal failure. (And one suspects that, with the Cheney/Bush administration, if we had a policyâ€â€which we don't, other than neglect and drugsâ€â€the record would be worse.)

What should the new president do about this unprecedented failure in our own backyard?

What should he do ON DAY ONE?

And by that, of course, I mean in the parlance of punditsâ€â€within the first 100 days of his first term of office.

I'll be very clear and very emphatic:

The very first action vis a vis Latin America should be to lift the embargo on Cuba and treat that nation just as we do other nations with repressive to partially-repressive regimes that are showing signs of accommodating the needs of the 21st Centuryâ€â€countries such as China, Vietnam, Georgia, Ukraine, Albania, and others.

Establishing more or less, más o menos, normal relations with Cubaâ€â€after more than a century and a half of paternalistic/imperialistic behavior toward Havanaâ€â€would be such a stunning signal to the rest of Latin America, that all manner of positive changes throughout the hemisphere might be possible in its wake.

And, by the way, if you want to read as good a treatise as there is on that paternalistic/imperialistic American attitude toward Cuba, read That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, forthcoming from the UNC Press, by Lars Schoultz.

The title comes of course from Theodore Roosevelt in one of his more pithy moments which, with that president and man in general, seemed to occur more frequently than with most presidents or men.

Those were different times calling for different men, we say, in our efforts to glorify the American past. And I say, yes, they wereâ€â€and THESE ARE DIFFERENT TIMES CALLING FOR VERY DIFFERENT MEN, AND WOMEN.

That the past is prologue should be as frequently taken as a warning as it is a template for action.

But with so many foreign policy issues of heavy consequence on the president's plate, why focus on Cubaâ€â€or, for that matter, Latin America?

Two very significant reasons at least.

First, our new president, like our current oneâ€â€or, at least partially, as a result of our current one and his Congressâ€â€is going to be mired chest-deep in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We see only its beginning at the present moment.

Retrenchment, withdrawal from costly overseas endeavors, a pulling in of our many overseas tentacles, if you will, is going to be an utter necessity.

I'm not talking about a return to isolationismâ€â€though sometimes I consider that such a move would be better than playing at being the new Rome, as Cheney and Bush have done for most of their time in office.

What I mean is our being constrained by over 50 trillion dollars of private and corporate debt in this country to a more sane, a more sustainable, and ultimately a wiser foreign policy.

And in that light, What cost Cuba?

How many billions of dollars will it cost the U.S. to reverse the foreign policy idiocy of half a century? Indeed, as I alluded to previously, of a century and a half?

How many loans from China, Japan, Germany, the UAE and others will we have to take out to lift the embargo?

Not a single loan. Nada. Zip. Nothing.

It will cost our country absolutely nothing in dollars to lift the embargo, in fact to effect a complete rapprochement with Cuba.

And that's all that Cuba wants. No huge loans. No ineffective USAID teams descending like mosquitoes on their provinces. No U.S. foreign assistance at all.

Just lift the embargo, allow travel, allow money to flow from Cuban-Americans with families and loved ones in Cubaâ€â€allow the normal relations of nations between the colossus and the little island.

So that's the first reason to effect swiftly dramatic changeâ€â€unlike Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a host of other supposedly more serious national security challenges, U.S.-Cuba relations cost nothing to fix.

The second reason for acting positively on Cuba in the first 100 days is more substantive.

By doing so, we open the door to our backyard, our hemisphere, to Canada, to Mexico, to all of Central and South America. We open the door in a way we have never done before.

The Monroe Doctrine was, at times, even when we enforced it, as John Q. Adams implied, in a rowboat in the wake of the British man o'war, enlightened self-interest. Later it became sheer imperialistic arrogance, at its depth in the Cold War even seeing communists everywhere and actually effecting the removal of democratically-elected leaders to thwart the alleged rise of communism. Think Chile, for example.

Even FDR's Good Neighbor policy was, in effect, a call to arms for WWII – not a bad policy, to be sure, but one that would eventually evolve to see tyrants as OK, as long as they were our tyrants. Does Fulgencio Batista come to mind for example?

But today, as in WWII, hemispheric cooperation and solidarity have never been more important but for very different reasons.

If we are to confront the serious challenges of our timeâ€â€and of the future times out to at
least 2050â€â€we must act together.

Whether planetary warming, energy transformation, global terrorism, dwindling water supplies, illicit drug trafficking, high seas piracy, global outbreaks of deadly diseases, coordinating free trade and open markets through the WTO, or a host of lesser regional and global challenges, none can be successfully met by any single nation acting alone.

In that light, look at what a dramatically changed, normal relationship with Cuba would start.

First, to the north Canada would have far less reason to worry that its southern neighbor has lost its mooringsâ€â€a distinct concern our very good friends to the north have harbored these past almost 8 years. A former Canadian prime minister said to me last year, "Larry, we don’t hate Americans, we need you, like you, and appreciate our economic synergies and that your security umbrella extends to us. What we fear is a headless giant in the world." And that former prime minister was right: we lack leadership.

Second, to the immediate south, our Mexican friends would have a similar reaction. Being naturally more wary about us, they would think it a trick initially and wait to see what happened. But as soon as we proved our seriousness by our actions, they would at least begin to believe we had recovered our senses.

In Central America, from Panamá to Honduras, there would be rejoicing and a willingness to reengage with a government that starts off with such a sound and decisive move.

And in South America, a tyrant like Chavez would have at least one of the carpets beneath his feet suddenly removed. The others, I surmise, are soon going to be removed by the people of Venezuela if Chavez doesn’t moderate his increasingly tyrannical ways.

Likewise, where there are South American leaders who increasingly view us as more dangerous than helpfulâ€â€again, there would be motivation on the part of these leaders to rethink and reengage.

Our follow-up with each capital would therefore be very importantâ€â€but that's for another speech. How we could improve all bilateral and regional relations is too complex to enter into here. Cuba would open the door; competent diplomacy and concrete actions would have to follow.

And I have no doubt that with a new man in the Oval Office, a new vice president in the West Wing who adheres to and believes in the Constitution of the United States, a new national security advisor there with him, with new ministers in the key departments, America can make it happen.

We've been down this road before with Europe but never with Latin America.

We've been down this road before with Japan but never with Latin America.

We've been down this road before with South Korea but never with Latin America.

We're traveling down this road today, however imperfectly, with China and India, but we are utterly stalled out in Latin America. Worse, in fact, for we are going backwards.

It is time we developed meaningful, concrete, uplifting policies for our own hemisphereâ€â€and it is time we de-emphasized the talk, the rhetoric, and lived those policies.

Actions are what we require, actions. And lifting the embargo on Cuba and normalizing relations should be the very first act.