REVIEW: Article

The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and the Promise of a Free Cuba

On July 10, 2006, President George W. Bush released the second report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) and with it a statement entitled “Compact with the People of Cuba.”[1]  The CAFC, which I co-chair with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was established by President Bush on October 10, 2003, to explore ways the United States can help hasten and ease a democratic transition in Cuba. In May 2004, the Commission presented its first report to the President, outlining a comprehensive program to:

  • bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the dictatorship;
  • establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law;
  • create the core institutions of a free economy;
  • modernize infrastructure; and
  • meet basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing, and human services.

Helping the Transition to Democracy

With the publication of its second report, the CAFC has underscored the Bush administration’s continuing commitment to the Cuban people, as well as its unwavering support for human rights, democracy, and the open market system.

The report recommends concrete steps that the United States might take to hasten the end of the Castro regime and ways to assist, if requested, a transitional Cuban government in organizing and conducting free and fair elections. Among the Commission’s recommendations is a proposal for a two-year, $80 million program to break the communist regime’s information blockade and reinforce efforts to prepare for the day when the country will hold free and fair elections.

The Compact, which was released concurrently with the Commission’s 2006 report, is a message of hope and reassurance to the Cuban people that they can count on US aid in areas essential to the successful completion of the transition to democracy, such as humanitarian assistance, economic recovery, and help in conducting free, fair elections. Both the report and the Compact are based on the proposition that the people of Cuba have a choice between economic and political freedom and opportunity or a continuation of the political repression and economic suffering that are the innate characteristics of the Castro regime.

A Half Century of Economic Decline

For over 48 years, the Castro regime has survived by stripping the average Cuban of all power and consolidating it among the privileged few. While the Western Hemisphere has been on a steady march toward freedom over the past half century, Cuba has regressed, and the Castro regime has succeeded in devastating the Cuban economy. All major economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product, health, and the standard of living, have declined on a per capita basis in Cuba since 1959.

Sugar, which has been the mainstay of Cuba’s economy for most of its history, has fallen upon troubled times. In 1989, sugar production was more than eight million tons.  Inefficient planting and cultivation methods, poor management, shortages of spare parts, and poor transportation infrastructure have devastated this once vital sector. In 2005, Cuban production of sugar was only 1.3 million tons.

A report prepared by the Cuba Transition Project in June 2003 indicated that living conditions in Cuba have deteriorated, evidenced by an acute housing shortage estimated at 1.66 million dwellings.

Years of foreign investment have not improved the lives of average Cubans, only the lives of those in power. According to the State Department, 1.9 million tourists, predominantly from Canada and the European Union, generated $2.1 billion for the Cuban economy in 2003. But the tourism industry, as is true of what little remains of Cuba’s productive economy, is controlled by the Cuban military.  In fact, as much as 60 percent of the Cuban economy is now owned and operated by Cuba’s military establishment.  These tourist resorts in Cuba are off limits for most Cuban nationals, since they cater almost exclusively to foreign tourists, thereby creating a kind of “tourism apartheid” that reinforces the repression of the Cuban people.

Racial Divisions and the Exploitation of Workers

Despite claims made to the contrary by the Castro regime, racial inequality is a fact of life in Cuba today. Since the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Afro-Cubans, who now make up 60 percent of the population, have been unable to play a role in society that reflects their importance in the country. Sadly, they are equal only in the sense that they too are denied fundamental human rights.

Cuban workers are likewise denied the benefits that their colleagues throughout the world take for granted. There is no freedom of association, nor freedom of speech, nor freedom to work where one chooses, nor a free flow of information.  Cubans who work for foreign firms that operate on the island are contracted directly from the Cuban government.  The foreign firms pay the government in dollars. The Cuban government, in turn, pays the workers in fewer (and devalued) Cuban pesos and pockets the difference.

This Cuban system of employment amounts to little more than indentured servitude. Yet critics of US policy, particularly those who call for lifting the US embargo, rarely acknowledge the exploitation and repression of workers on the island.

Corruption: A Byproduct of Economic Collapse

In such a degraded economic environment, it is difficult for Cubans to make an honest living and to apply their skills and creativity to help their families prosper. The Cuban people live on ration cards, which provide staples such as rice and beans. But, at best, the cards provide only enough rations to live for ten days. To make up the difference, many Cubans are forced to turn to the black market, which exploits the poorest of the poor.  And if someone should try to make his life better by starting a small business venture, he risks being charged with breaking communist laws.

The inevitable result of such economic conditions has been the creation of a culture of widespread corruption. To survive, Cubans are forced to skim off the top, live on the margins, and resolve to get by using whatever means are at their disposal.  The common good suffers: Planks disappear from park benches to patch holes in roofs and walls; Tools disappear from government worksites so people can attempt to earn some income as cobblers or handymen.

A Failed Experiment with Entrepreneurship

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its most generous patron and the main subsidizer of its inefficient economy. In 1993, after Cuban GDP dropped by nearly a third, the Castro regime began selectively issuing permits to allow the creation of private enterprises in an effort to offset this economic loss. Yet after this so-called “special period,” when the Cuban economy began to improve several years later, the experiment with capitalism was halted.

Fidel Castro saw the new-found economic independence of these entrepreneurs as a threat to his power. After all, the most effective way for a communist dictator to hold power is to ensure that people are kept tied down by the chains of dependence. Self-sufficiency, individual empowerment, and personal independence are all threats that are not tolerated.

Embargo: Neither Problem nor Solution

Some claim that by maintaining an economic embargo against Cuba, the United States has made the situation on the island worse. The evidence demonstrates otherwise. The United States has been a major source of humanitarian aid to Cuba. Currently, the United States supplies one-third of the island’s food and medicine. According to the first report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, up to $1 billion, or roughly 2.5 percent of the Cuban economy, came from remittances from the United States.

The embargo is not the problem or the solution. The problem is the repressive communist system. The solution is for the Cuban people to change their system of governance.

We see scant prospects that lifting US economic sanctions would weaken the Castro regime and force change.  The regime has long imposed policies to assure its own control over all economic activities, including those of foreign investors and tourists.  Those policies are deliberately designed to keep Cubans dependent, and to minimize outside influences on them.

The United States must stand firm in its rejection of the Cuban dictatorship. This means pursuing a policy of continued denial of revenue to the Castro regime while reaching out directly to the people of Cuba. This is a policy that has been pursued for almost 50 years by presidents from both political parties.

Looking to the Future

When the time comes, the United States must be prepared to help the Cuban people make a transition to a democratic society.  The Bush administration has pledged to do so in both reports issued by the CAFC and in its “Compact with the People of Cuba.”

To support such a transition, the United States pledges to:

  • provide emergency food, water, fuel, and medical equipment;
  • help rebuild Cuba’s shattered economy;
  • respect the right of the Cuban people to be secure in their homes;
  • encourage assistance from other countries, associations, and private companies; and
  • discourage third parties from intervening to obstruct the will of the Cuban people.

The United States is prepared to assist a Cuban transition government that is committed to dismantling all instruments of state repression and implementing internationally respected human rights and fundamental freedoms, including:

  • guaranteeing the rights of free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship;
  • legalizing all peaceful political activity;
  • releasing all political prisoners;
  • establishing an independent judiciary;
  • allowing the creation of independent trade unions and independent social, economic, and political associations; and
  • ensuring the right to private property.

In the Compact with the People of Cuba, the United States government has pledged to help create opportunities for the Cuban people to build a prosperous, open economy, following a request for assistance from a transition Cuban government. The United States will fulfill its pledge by undertaking a sustained, coordinated economic development program of assistance that will be essential to the successful completion of Cuba’s transition to democracy.

The greatest threat to the Castro regime is not the United States government, but the spirit of freedom that is in the hearts of the Cuban people and their ability to invent, to dream, and to create a society of prosperity, equality and hope. The people of Cuba deserve freedom, dignity and social justice. The future of Cuba is in the hands of the people in Cuba.

[1] For additional information on the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, its most recently published report, and the “Compact with the People of Cuba,” visit the commission’s Web site at

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Secretary of Commerce