October 28, 1996 Volume 148, No. 20
CLINTON'S CUBAN ROAD TO FLORIDA HOW POLICY WAS TURNED BY A FEW CUBAN AMERICANS, INCLUDING HIS SISTER-IN-LAW
Not too long ago, all a Republican presidential candidate had to do was point out that his opponent was soft on Fidel Castro to maintain the G.O.P.'s lock on Florida's powerful Cuban-American community. But Bob Dole has nothing on Bill Clinton. The President has been courting that community, and to them he is now a hard-liner after their own hearts. A Miami poll has found that 41% of Florida's Cuban Americans plan to vote for Clinton, almost double what he won in 1992, finally giving him a chance to take the state he lost by a squeaker in 1992. It is one of the biggest triumphs of his campaign.
But the Clinton turnaround has come with costs. The tale of how he brought it off involves excessive influence over foreign policy by a special-interest group, gloves-off bureaucratic infighting and a willingness to bash U.S. allies for electoral gain. It also involves peril. Wooing Dade County's 678,000 Cuban Americans has resulted in the most volatile period of confrontation with Havana since the 1962 missile crisis. The Pentagon fears it is only a matter of time before another event like February's shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes by Cuban MiGs sparks a military confrontation between the two countries.
Four years ago, senior State Department diplomats hoped Clinton would breathe fresh air into U.S.-Cuban relations. Miami's fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community had long blocked any thaw, though the Pentagon had concluded that Havana posed no threat to the region, and Washington had made peace with almost all its cold war enemies. But half a dozen Cuban-American Democrats who raised huge sums for Clinton in 1992 convinced the new President he could win Florida in '96 if he became even more anti-Castro than Ronald Reagan or George Bush had been.
Senior Clinton aides call the cabal the "core group." It includes Maria Victoria Arias, a Miami lawyer married to Hugh Rodham, the First Lady's brother; and wealthy businessman Paul Cejas, who occasionally stays overnight at the White House. Arias telephones Hillary frequently and often sends Clinton clippings from Florida newspapers. In regular meetings at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables or at Little Havana's Versailles Restaurant, the core group plans strategy and prepares appeals, which are sent by way of private notes to Clinton's top political aides. "When an issue comes up, we try to get a consensus and present a united front," says core-group member Simon Ferro, a Miami Democratic activist.
Clinton came to the Oval Office with his own Castro obsession. In 1980 he lost re-election as Governor partly because Cuban refugees rioted at an Arkansas Army post. As President he ordered the CIA to estimate the chances of an upheaval in Cuba during his first term: the agency said better than fifty-fifty. Clinton aides later pressed the cia to fund Cuban dissidents secretly. Burned by a dirty-tricks campaign against Castro in the '60s, the agency sidetracked the idea.
Clinton's foreign policy toward Cuba soon became snarled in bureaucratic battles between Administration hard-liners and moderates. In 1994 Castro allowed 33,000 Cubans to flee to South Florida, and the Administration began discouraging more escapees by detaining the rafters indefinitely at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The core group urged Clinton to punish Havana by halting airline flights to Cuba, but State Department moderates lobbied to maintain informal exchanges, including charter flights. Morton Halperin, the National Security Council's point man on Cuba, circulated a draft presidential speech offering carrots to Castro if he adopted reforms. Hard-liners, led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Michael Skol, allied themselves with the core group and launched a guerrilla war against the conciliatory moves. Clinton shelved the carrots and embarked on the hard line.
By January 1995 the U.S. Atlantic Command chief, General John Sheehan, who had pressed to ease tensions with Havana, began badgering the White House to clear out the 20,000 Cubans at Guantanamo. Riots were possible, he warned, and by his staff's estimate, a permanent refugee camp would cost some $2 billion. Three months later, partly with that figure as ammunition, Administration moderates staged a policy coup. Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff began secretly talking to Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's legislature. The Guantanamo refugees would be sent to Florida. To stanch any new exodus, U.S. Coast Guard boats would intercept future rafters at sea and return them to Cuba on condition that the regime not punish them.
So that no one would catch on, Tarnoff had his wife book his airline ticket to Toronto, where he met with Alarcon in a hotel room to sign the deal. Tarnoff and Halperin were afraid the Cuban Americans might try to scuttle the talks. Indeed, a decision memo had to be sent to Clinton three times before he finally agreed to keep the negotiations secret from the core group. When the agreement was announced, however, angry Cuban Americans poured into the streets of Miami, and the core group retaliated by having Clinton oust Halperin as Cuba point man. The core group then hovered over every inch of policy. A Clinton speech in October 1995 announcing minor cultural exchanges took three months of vetting.
Meanwhile, hard-liners in Havana and Miami were edging both countries toward a crisis. Planes from Brothers to the Rescue, based in Miami, began buzzing Havana, dropping propaganda leaflets. Castro fired off angry notes to Washington warning "deadly force" would be used unless the flights stopped. In January, U.S. intelligence agencies spotted Cuban MiGs test-firing air-to-air missiles and practicing maneuvers to attack slow-moving aircraft similar to the Brothers' planes. The State Department, however, did not believe Castro would attack.
Then on Feb. 24, two Brothers' Cessnas were shot down near Cuban airspace. The core group pressed Clinton to respond militarily. Two days later, the President gathered his top national security advisers in the White House Cabinet Room and grilled the Joint Chiefs Chairman, General John Shalikashvili, on whether the U.S. should punish Cuba with a cruise-missile attack or air strikes. The general argued against any military action, and Clinton eventually abandoned the idea. But five days after that, the White House sent a secret note warning Havana that the U.S. would react militarily if more planes were shot down. The following week a belligerent U.S. Congress passed the conservative Helms-Burton bill, imposing even more draconian sanctions than the 34-year-old U.S. embargo. Foreign-policy aidesopposed the bill, which punishes foreign companies that trade with Cuba. But the President could taste victory in Florida and signed the bill on March 12.
The Helms-Burton law is creating diplomatic havoc. Europe, Asia and Latin America are ignoring Washington's demand to halt trade with Cuba and threatening economic retaliation against the U.S. if Clinton carries out the law's most severe penalties. Ironically, Castro has benefited politically from the crisis. A CIA estimate this summer concluded that the new sanctions have actually strengthened his regime, handing it a convenient excuse to crack down on dissidents. "We're left now with a relationship that's more dysfunctional than during the cold war," says Robert Pastor, an NSC expert on Latin America during the Carter Administration. But in Florida, Clinton leads Dole in the latest polls by as much as five percentage points.
With reporting by Cathy Booth/Miami
Copyright © 1996 Time Magazine