JIM HAMPTON

U.S., Cuban generals should talk

PARTS OF our Cuban community were agog last week over a video, shown on WLTV-Channel 23, showing American officers, including Marine Gen. John Sheehan, the U.S. Atlantic Command's commander -- schmoozing with Cuban officers at the U.S. base at Guantanamo last December.

``It is shocking to observe top U.S. officials of an institution dedicated to defending our freedom fraternizing with the military leader [Cuban Gen. Carlos Perez Perez] of a regime which is a sworn enemy of the United States, . . . '' fumed U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.

`Enemies' routinely talk

``Shocking''? I'd call it ``appropriate,'' or even ``essential.''

Professional soldiers respect one another's roles and perils. They know that they may face death in combat because of rash decisions by hotheaded politicians whose only peril is not to be re-elected (or, in dictatorships, to be toppled).

In that light, South Korean officers talk with their North Korean ``enemies.'' Israeli officers talk with their Syrian ``enemies.'' U.S. officers during the Cold War talked with their Soviet ``enemies.'' What's different about U.S. and Cuban officers talking?

Nothing. And yet, given Cuba's special status and the Cuban military's crucial role within it, everything.

``This meeting was not Jack Sheehan's decision,'' says a State Department official whom I cannot identify. ``It is part of our Cuba policy.''

Under this policy, for years U.S. and Cuban officers have met infrequently at Guantanamo ``to discuss migration issues and mutual-safety issues,'' says General Sheehan's aide, Navy Capt. Craig Quigley. General Sheehan has attended ``a couple'' of these meetings. They became monthly during the 1994 rafter crisis. They're usually held, as this one was, in a tent at the base's northeast gate.

General Sheehan and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped at Gitmo on a trip to Haiti last December. General Shali didn't attend the U.S.-Cuban meeting. General Sheehan was the guest speaker, Captain Quigley explains, and he wanted to introduce General Perez Perez to Col. John McKay, a highly decorated Marine who was succeeding Navy Rear Adm. Michael Haskins as commander of Joint Task Force 160. That's the unit formed to deal with Haitian, and then Cuban, rafters at Gitmo.

Building a record

The U.S. policy also aims to show the Cuban officers that the Castro regime, not they, is the United States's adversary, my State Department source says. ``The Cuban military is not going to disappear,'' this expert rightly reckons. ``It's going to be there after Castro. It might well be the [next Cuban] government.

``So we want the Cuban military to know that we mean it when we say, `We'll see you next week at 4 o'clock.' Because at some point we might have to say, `If you don't do such-and-such by 4 o'clock, we'll do this-and-such' [i.e., attack]. We have to build a record of keeping our word.''

General Perez Perez is ``the guy whose job it is to prevent Cubans from getting into the minefield, and to retrieve those who do get into it,'' my source says, adding more significantly:

``We don't want them [the Cubans] making a mistake and shooting at our guys, or us making a mistake and shooting at their guys, because of a plane taking off the wrong way, or a helicopter over the minefields'' -- or a Cuban or U.S. patrol trying to rescue somebody risking death among the mines. Is that unreasonable? To me, it's eminently sensible.

Hear now Ed Gonzalez, a Cuba specialist with the RAND Corp. and professor emeritus of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. He's the author of major RAND studies on Cuba for the Pentagon in 1994 and last April.

Those two studies, he says, ``feel that the Cuban military is the most pivotal, critical institution in Cuba today. It's more important than the ruling Communist Party. This [military] institution is critical to the survival of the regime. It's also going to play a pivotal role in Cuba's future.

``We therefore need to cultivate ties to Cuba's military. It is counterproductive to the United States not to do so. Those who criticize that meeting are therefore playing into Castro's hands when they criticize General Sheehan and Admiral Haskins.

Sorting sheep from goats

``What you want to do with a regime is to try to divide it,'' Professor Gonzalez adds, ``to try to sow divisions between the fidelistas and the raulistas [followers of Raul Castro], between the potentially progressive military officers and the hard-liners.

``What you don't want to do is to coalesce the regime, to give the Cuban military no choice but to defend Castro. You want to make it clear to the Cuban officers that they have a life after Fidel Castro.

``We know next to nothing -- next to nothing -- about the Cuban military,'' Professor Gonzalez goes on, ``and one of these days one of these guys may show up at the presidential palace, and we're not going to know a thing about him.'' Thus the protest of Cuban-Americans in Congress against the U.S.-Cuban officers' meeting ``is like saying you're going to turn off the headlights on your car when it's pitch dark and raining.''

He's right. General Sheehan is no naif. He's tough, smart, a Marine's Marine. He should be commended, not castigated, for continuing these military-to-military contacts. By flogging him, the Cuban Americans in Congress actually are working against the peaceable transition in Cuba that they profess to want.

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