WASHINGTON » Cuba is getting a free pass on its human rights abuses from many of the world’s leading democracies, with visitors from Canada, Australia and Switzerland failing to criticize the Castro regime or meet with dissidents while on the island, according to a confidential diplomatic cable sent to the State Department from Havana.
The cable, transmitted in November 2009 and signed by Jonathan D. Farrar, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, hinted that there were economic motives behind the accommodating approach. But if so, the cable concluded, these countries were not getting much of a payoff.
The rewards for acquiescing to Cuban sensitivities, it said, were "risible: pomp-full dinners and meetings, and for the most pliant, a photo-op with one of the Castro brothers."
The cable added, "In terms of substance or economic benefits they fare little better than those who stand up to" the government.
And yet, in a cable sent six months earlier, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana also lamented that the Cuban dissidents supported by Washington for decades were old, out of touch and so split by internecine squabbles that the United States should look elsewhere for future leaders.
While that cable, also signed by Farrar, said dissidents deserved continued U.S. support, it said that some groups had been infiltrated by Cuban intelligence.
"We see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among Cubans," it said.
A trove of cables made public by WikiLeaks attests to the strained nature of the Cuban-American relationship, at a time when Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, is in failing health and his ideological feud with Washington has little relevance for other countries eager to build bridges. The United States, by contrast, clings to a trade embargo and a policy of isolating Cuba.
"On the one hand, the U.S. is saying the dissidents are hopeless and aging," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow and expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations. "On the other hand, the same interests section is saying that the Canada and EU engagement is not helping progress on human rights."
Pointing to Cuba’s release of political prisoners and the economic reforms being championed by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, Sweig said the engagement of the EU and other countries appeared to be more fruitful than the implacable cold shoulder from Washington.
The United States operates an interests section, rather than an embassy, in Havana because the two countries have not had diplomatic relations for five decades. The office sends a steady stream of analysis to Washington, with vivid dispatches on Fidel Castro’s health problems and sober speculation about how Cuba might change after he finally leaves the scene.
There is also evidence that Raul Castro, the president, has reached out to the United States. In a cable dated December 2009, Farrar reported that Castro sought a "political channel" to the White House. The Cuban president raised the issue with the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, who passed it on to Farrar via Spain’s ambassador to Cuba, Manuel Cacho.
On Wednesday, the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, ruled out high-level contacts without major political changes.
"We have not seen anything approaching fundamental change in Cuba at this point," he said. The administration has held only technical talks about Cuban migration.
A senior State Department official said the United States was encouraged by the release of political prisoners but noted that most of those people were immediately exiled from the country.
In the cable about how other countries deal with Cuba on official visits, U.S. officials classified those approaches on a scale from kowtowing to confrontational: "best-friends-forever," "keep-it-private," "we-respectfully-disagree" and, in rare cases, "take-your-visit-and-shove-it."
A large majority of countries with diplomatic posts in Havana, it said, do not raise human rights issues with the Cuban government in public or private. A handful of countries – including Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic – have refused to send senior officials to Cuba, rather than accept the government’s restrictions on who they can meet while there.
Other countries fall somewhere in between, agreeing to restrictions but broaching the topic of human rights, mostly behind closed doors. A senior Canadian minister, Peter Kent, broached the issue of political prisoners with officials but left Havana without voicing public criticism.
Another offender, the cable said, was the EU, which takes a softer line toward Cuba than many of its member states. Officials at the European mission, it said, told U.S. diplomats they looked forward to Spain’s assuming the rotating presidency of the union because it was more moderate than the "radical" Swedes and Czechs.
The cable singles out the Vatican for praise, noting that one of its representatives, Archbishop Claudio Celli, called for "greater information and Internet access for all Cubans." He even praised Cuban bloggers, angering his hosts, although he later softened his comments back in Rome.
It is not exactly clear what quid pro quo countries hope to get for their friendly behavior, but analysts said Europeans were eager to forge commercial ties with Cuba, in part because they feared that if relations between Havana and Washington thawed, Americans would have an edge.
In addition to human rights issues, cables from Havana kept a close eye on Fidel Castro’s deteriorating health. A March 2007 cable, signed by Farrar’s predecessor, Michael E. Parmly, sought to debunk official claims of a "Castro comeback" after his long absence from the public stage.
Based on a report from an opposition figure, it said Castro became critically ill with a perforated intestine while on a plane in July 2006. His condition was complicated because he refused to have a colostomy. A Cuban doctor familiar with the case said that Castro could not be cured and that he would "progressively lose his faculties and become ever more debilitated until he dies."
Nearly two years later, another cable reported the latest rumors of Castro’s death. It concluded that his death would have little immediate effect.
"We do not believe the announcement of Fidel’s death would spark either violent demonstrations or a quick surge in migration," it said.