Monday, September 13, 2010

The Goldberg flap: Journalist declares Castro "sane" and "moral"

by Joel Wendland

After Fidel Castro stirred up some controversy last week with an offhand comment made to The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg about ineffectiveness of Cuba's socialist "model," Goldberg thinks the former Cuban president may have sought to alleviate some controversy within Cuba's governing institutions by "walking back" his comment. In explaining further his take on Fidel's widely disseminated remarks, Goldberg ended up describing Castro positively, declaring some of his comments as "sane" and "moral."

During a several hours long interview over the course of three days in Havana, Goldberg asked Fidel Castro about Cuba's economy in the context of a larger discussion of Latin America and trade. In a manner that Goldberg described as almost a "throw away remark" Castro said, "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."

Interpreting the remark literally and borrowing insights about the context of the comment from his friend Julia Sweig, an expert on Cuba with the Council on Foreign Relations, who traveled with him and listened to the conversation, Goldberg wrote that the former president's comments suggested the need for big changes in Cuba's political and economic system, changes that have been underway for several years now, including in the final years of Fidel's presidency. In his original post, Goldberg went on to describe some of those changes and even hinted that the ongoing U.S. policy toward Cuba is "hypocritical" and "stupidly self-defeating."

After Goldberg's reporting was published at The Atlantic's website late last week, President Castro delivered a talk Friday, Sept. 10, at the University of Havana promoting his new book, The Strategic Counteroffensive, in which he said Goldberg had misinterpreted his comment. Though insisting Goldberg had quoted him accurately and praising Goldberg's skills and professionalism, Castro said, "the truth is that the meaning of my response was exactly the opposite of the interpretation made by both American journalists of the Cuban model."

"My idea, as everybody knows," Castro explained, "is that the capitalist system does not work anymore either for the United States or the world, which jumps from one crisis into the next, and these are ever more serious, global and frequent and there is no way the world could escape from them. How could such a system work for a socialist country like Cuba?"

This clarification of the comment didn't sit well with Goldberg. In a teleconference with reporters Sept. 13, in which both Goldberg and Sweig sought to clarify their perspective on the situation, Goldberg expressed some doubts about Castro's response. "I don't know how you can interpret [the quote] as its opposite," Goldberg said in defense of his reporting.

Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, added that Castro's "clarification was intended to signal to certain domestic constituents that although, it's not even an open secret, it's common knowledge, widely discussed, in terms of how they're going to fix the model and where they're going to go in terms of economic liberalization, what he wanted to say is that although we're changing our model, that doesn't mean that we're importing U.S.-style capitalism." She added that she believes both Fidel and Raul Castro are of a single mind on the need for these changes to Cuba's economic system.

Cuba's leading institutions of governance have set the stage for a number of important systemic changes toward a market-oriented economy, Sweig explained. New proposals include private ownership of land, the shift from collective farming to cooperative farming with private ownership rights, the licensing of the 250,000 to 500,000 small businesses with non-family employees (as long as Social Security taxes are paid), and introduction of limited foreign investments in real estate. Just this week, the Cuban government announced a plan to shift 500,000 government workers into the private sector in order to cut unsustainable budget expenditures.

Sweig added that Cuba's internal changes and other global realities show that U.S. attempts at economic isolation of Cuba have failed and are unnecessary. The embargo is not a foreign policy; it is a domestic policy aimed at nothing more than addressing "a perception of the Cuban American vote" in Florida. "I think it's time for the United States to recognize that 50 years of one policy haven't achieved the intention which was to block the revolution, stop them from exporting it, and overthrow etc.," she noted. "I think it is time to take 'yes' for an answer."

"To be fair," she continued, "this administration, the Obama administration, while moving very slowly, recognizes that this is an obsolete policy." Right now, other major foreign policy considerations have pushed Cuba policy to the back burner and the Florida issue remains a stumbling block in terms of domestic U.S. elections. She described as positive President Obama's lifting of harsh Bush era travel bans on Cuban Americans and recent considerations in Congress to change the rules governing trade and travel with Cuba. "I think it is just a matter of time," she indicated, referring to the likelihood of lifting the embargo.

For his part, Goldberg initially insisted that Castro's motives for opening this discussion were personal rather than part of a strategic Cuban foreign policy initiative. "I think it's Fidel wanting to insert himself on the international stage a little bit," he said.

Goldberg revisited Castro's original remarks to him on anti-Semitism. In the original interview Castro stated that Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism from some quarters, especially in the Iranian government, were an anathema and especially harmful to pursuing peace. To reporters Goldberg said, "I have no way of judging this for sure, I can't look into a man's heart, but I think that the idea of holocaust denial in particular seems to genuinely offend him, as it should offend any sane moral person. And I think he had a very specific strong feeling to what Ahmadinejad has been saying."

Goldberg described his experience with Castro as "very spontaneous." "In other words," he added, "I don't think this was a foreign ministry derived plan."

"Fidel's Fidel," Goldberg explained. "It's good to be in essence the retired king, and I think a lot of it has been spontaneous. I have no doubt that the Council of State, the Foreign Ministry, and various other people would like to harness his new energy … in ways they thought were productive."

"He wants to talk about Iran one day and go to the Aquarium the next, and that's what he's going to do," Goldberg insisted.

Sweig took a different tack and suggested Fidel's actions may not be an official act but were by no means "in contradiction" Raul Castro's agenda.

When pressed further on whether or not the trip and the comments may have originated as an unofficial signal in favor of resetting U.S.-Cuba relations, Goldberg backed away a bit. "It is very hard to see the deliberateness of what we experienced when we were there. It might be true that there might be a deliberateness, or that, that Fidel certainly didn't do what he did and say what he said without Raul's knowledge and approval. Those things are all possibilities. We have no way of discerning that."

"Functionally," Goldberg went on, "I would have to say yes, some of the things he is doing could set the stage for a slightly different relationship between the U.S. and Cuba."

Sweig agreed, but emphasized that changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba will happen only after domestic political dynamics within the U.S. change in favor of opening friendlier relations with the island country.

My two cents

This whole episode reminds me of a couple of scenes from the 2000 Kevin Costner movie Thirteen Days in October about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a movie Fidel Castro saw and praised strongly at the time it was shown in Havana a couple years later. Notably, of course, Fidel Castro was intimately involved in the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. During his interview with Goldberg, he suggested he now regretted some of his personal role in the crisis, comments which he did not "walk back" in his subsequent response to Goldberg's article.

At one point in the movie, President Kennedy struggles to keep on top of the generals who desperately want to bomb Cuba to smithereens. One tactic he uses to attempt to regain control of the situation is to bring in the venerated Washington journalist Walter Lippmann to float a trial balloon announcing the possible peaceful resolution of the crisis with a deal to remove U.S. nukes from Turkey in exchange for removal of the Soviet nukes from Cuba. If the movie is true to real events, the leaked story tactic was done without the knowledge of his closest advisors except for Robert F. Kennedy.

Simply put, Kennedy used a reporter to send a diplomatic message to the Cubans and the Russians that he sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis, a "reset" of the situation which found the world on the brink of nuclear war.

While it may have been a point of prestige and pride for Lippmann to be used that way by President Kennedy, Goldberg probably has a personal, professional and political motive for refusing to see himself as having been used by Fidel Castro, hence his vigorous refusal to accept the possibility that the meeting and subsequent hubbub were on some level deliberate. Journalists are supposed to be smart and above being used, especially by former Communist leaders.

Regardless of the controversy, Cuba's choices about how to organize its society are its own to make. How it chooses to reorganize its economic system will likely be based on its own experiences and needs, not on formulas or the political intrigues of outside parties, especially the U.S. The events of this past week suggest the need for Americans to continue to demand a reevaluation of and change in U.S. policy toward Cuba that sees the beginning of the end of hypocritical travel and trade restrictions.

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