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Unsettled Thoughts About Haiti And Cuba

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-m:iuumá:iiwjAtrAi'rLm Editor's Note: Eric Jackson, an Associate Editor of AGENDA, f i led this report f rom Panama, where he has een living since mid-February. Dean get pretty emotional about U.S. foreign policy. It may have something to do with being evacuated from my house when I was eleven years old, during riots which took the lives of 23 Panamanians and four Americans. Maybe it's my generation, which came of politica! age during the Vietnam War. Visits to mass graves and the charred remains of a city neighborhood in the wake of the 1989 U.S. invasión of Panama might affect my thinking. But as horrible as U.S. behavior in the worid has been, my primary emotional response is not anger. The f ury lasts a short while and goes, but the amazement never ends. How could people be so stupid? Right. We'll snoot a few of them, and that'll keep the rest in line. If ourold friend gets out of control, we'll bring in some new guy who's willing to sell his country to us, and he'll be loyal. We'll send in advisors toteach them to be just like us, which is what every rational person wants to be anyway. I feit that sad amazement the week that U .S. Marines went into Somalia, when the video tube showed well-intentioned leathemecks teaching Muslim kids to sing Christmas carols. I feel it every time that I read about chaotic post-Sandinista Nicaragua. It's constantly in my head as the saga of Haitian and Cuban refugees plays itself out in Panama. Fellow news junkies may recall that in July, Guillermo Endara - who was Panama's lame duck president at the time - agreed to take in 10,000 Haitian refugees. After a firestorm of criticism, he quickly reneged on this pledge. But mainstream U.S. news media didn't report the details of that fiasco. Endara wanted to put 1 0,000 Haitians on San José Island, in the Perlas Archipelago in the Gulf of Panama. That is, well out of sight of most Panamanians, and in no position to affect the national economy. Bill Clinton, faced with a constituency that doesn't welcome the prospect of Haitians moving in next door, was grateful for Endara's hospitality. But San José Island is a nature preserve, home to several unique plant and animal species. It's owned by a Panamanian couple who have a little eco-tourist lodge there. The owners don't support Endara's political party, and they didn't want to play host to 1 0,000 people at once. Endara insisted that he'd confíscate the island and turn it over to the U.S. military if the owners wouldn't go along. In 1977 Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos signed a treaty that said that U.S. bases would be phased out, so that by the year 2000 there would be no more gringo troops in Panama. And here was this despised product of U.S. political and military intervention, about to leave office after his party was routed by those who venérate the memory of General Torrijos, talking about creating a new U.S. military base. So there were plenty of Panamanians upset about Endara's offer for some very good reasons. Then there were the standard racists and xenophobes, many from within Endara's own Arnulfísta party. Their little neo-Nazi mantra put "AIDS" and "crime" in the same breath as "Haitians" in countless national assembly speeches. So Endara slithered out of his promise to Slick Willie. But then Ernesto "Toro" Pérez Balladares, awaiting his September 1 presidential inauguration, said that he'd take in Haitians, so long as they are kept at an existing U.S. military base, at U.S. expense, fora limited time and in limited numbers. When the Clinton administration got more Cuban rafters than it could house at Guantanamo, Toro made the same offer in that case. By the time that the new govern m ent was sworn in, few Haitians were taking to the sea, while Cubans were fleeing in droves. So now hundreds of Cubans are housed n tents at Empire Range, a U.S. bomb and artillery testing ground where Panamanian soldiers were mprisoned, tortured and in afewcases executed during the 1989 invasión. The Arnulfistas tried to whip up fear of a crime wave, but most people here sympathize with the Cuban rafters. Just to be safe, however, pregnant refugees were returned to Guantanamo, lest they deliver babies who would possess the citizenship rights which come with being bom on Panamanian soil. After six months, all the Cubans are supposed to be gone from Panama, and most expect that the problem will be resolved with a quiet policy shift which lands them in Miami. Meanwhile, Clinton seems to have maneuvered his way to acceptable ends to both the Cuban and Haitian crises. So it seems. But I don 't like the way that Clinton likened Haiti to Grenada and Panama to justify a possible invasión. The Panama and Grenada invasions were unnecessary, brutal and flagrantly Ilegal. In each case, the U.S. imposed pathetic puppet regimes after the shooting stopped. President Aristide is no puppet. He was elected despite Bush's opposition. But a lot of Haitian legislators owe their positions to covert U.S. support. Does Clinton's idea of restored democracy require Aristide to follow the policies of the men that Bush bought? Will guarantees of "free elections" next year mean that American troops will ensure that the candidate with the most foreign money wins? And what's this about "retraining" Haiti's army and pólice? After their crime spree, the only way that such a thing could make sense is if "retraining" means being sentto some sort of reform school, behind bars, for a long time. My angst increases when I think about Cuba. Clinton is talking the same tired stuff against Castro, but in fact seems to be changing long-standing U.S. policies. Most significantly, no longer will Cubans be automatically allowed into the United States. Since I was a kid I 've thought that a revolution against the privileged elites, and against U.S. domination, s a good dea throughout Latin America. Fidel Castro symbolizes these things to me, and to millions of Latin American s. Whatever Castro's faults, to mention him in the same light as a venal sadist like Raoul Cedras is a vile slander. But Castro isa caudillo, a dictator in the Latin American tradition. Though there are no death squads in Cuba, Castro tolerates no opposition to his govemment. The consequences of dictatorship affect not only personal freedoms, but alsothe island's economie health. Cuba has a political patronage systemwithinagovemment-runeconomy. Trie result is that a lot of talented people have been marginalized, and mediocre party hacks have risen to the top. After 35 years, the hacks have become complacent, as do officeholders of any party in power for so long. Quite aside from the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc and the U.S. economie blockade - although these are important factors - Castro's government is in trouble because it has been in office too long. Cuba needs change, but if it comes from the north it will end in tragedy. If Jorge Mas Canosa and his Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation get their way, a vicious right-wing dictatorship will be imposed in Castro's place. One only has to look at the violence visited on dissidents within Miami's Cuban exile community to realize this. When I think of U.S. troops in Haiti, and new policies toward Cuba, I wanttogive Clinton the benefit of my doubts. But even though good intentions do matter, l'm still left ncredulous. After so many failures, haven't those guys in Washington leamed that - regard less of their motives- they're not competent to run the affairs of neighboring countries?


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