I am writing to you because of a program on the new Al Jazeera cable news network. I turned it on just to see what it was like, and happened upon a David Frost interview of the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. I knew nothing about Acosta, but the interview made me reflect on US-Cuban relations. As a Vietnam veteran, I find it odd that after a hot, fighting war, we have become best friends with Vietnam, while because of a small guerrilla action in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, we are still consumed with virulent hatred of Cuba. I think it is time to change this policy and develop a rapprochement with Cuba.
American policy toward Cuba is a legacy of Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The Helms-Burton Amendment restricting visas for people connected in almost any way with Cuba was one of the reasons I retired from the State Department Foreign Service. I was serving as science officer in Rome where my job required me to attend a cocktail party celebrating the launching of an Italian satellite by the US. I was chatting with an executive of the Italian telephone company, who said something like, “You Americans must really hate us. My daughter was just denied a visa to go to Disneyland because I work for the telephone company.” I was totally surprised, and the next day went to ask the Consul General, who oversaw visa issuance, about it. She said it was true. Because the Italian telephone company had some connection with the Mexican telephone company, which had some connection to the Cuban telephone company, they were prohibited by Helms-Burton from issuing visas to family members of people who worked for the Italian telephone company.
Many years ago, I had read Herman Wouk’s books on World War II: Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. At some point somewhat late in the books, I think the Jewish heroine is trying to get to Israel from Rome. The Germans who controlled the visas said they would give her a visa, but they would not give a visa to her daughter, in effect preventing her from leaving. I realize that these books are fiction, but the idea of punishing parents through their children was one of the worst things Wouk could think of to tar the Nazis with. I found abhorrent the idea of the United States doing the same thing to penalize Cubans rather than Jews. Why should the Bay of Pigs make Americans act like Nazis? We need to put this hatred of Cuba behind us.
This was only part of the reason I retired because of my disappointment with the US government. The main reasons had to do with government funding, which promises to be an issue again in the next few months. I hope that you will not shut down the government as I happened to be scheduled to transfer from the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, to the American Embassy in Rome on the day that Speaker Gingrich closed down the government. I was saying goodbye to friends at the Warsaw Embassy and was in the military attaché’s office, when my Polish assistant (who could not enter that classified area) called and said Embassy Rome was on the line. They said that because of the government shutdown I could not leave Warsaw for Rome. We had left our house; our car was packed, including two dogs, and we had planned to leave as soon as the Embassy closed for the day. The State Department had a few weeks earlier asked me to curtail my assignment in Warsaw, because Italy was about to assume the Presidency of the European Union, and as a result of some dustup with the State Department personnel system, the Science Counselor in Rome had just resigned or been fired. When a country assumes the EU presidency the workload for the embassy more or less doubles, because it has to maintain a dialogue about EU-wide issues, as well as the usual dialogue about bilateral issues.
Most Foreign Service officers fight for an assignment in Rome, but in this case I was doing it because the State Department said it needed me. I didn’t know it until I got that 5:00 pm call, but I found out that the Deputy Chief of Mission (deputy to the Ambassador) was a friend I had served with in Brazil. He made arrangements for me to travel to Rome, so that my wife and I were not turned out on the streets of Warsaw by the US government. This was a bitter reminder of a night during the Vietnam War at Firebase Barbara on a mountaintop west of Quang Tri. We received intelligence that an enemy unit was forming at the base of the mountain. Because of Vietnamization, we had no American infantry support; we had air defense “dusters,” vehicles with twin 40 mm cannons to protect us. Our battalion headquarters radioed and said that the dusters were notoriously lazy and had not resupplied with gasoline, which was difficult to get to the mountaintop. Headquarters said we were not to give any of our gasoline to the dusters. Under the circumstances this could have been a death sentence. Of course we made sure the dusters had gas; they fired hundreds or thousands of rounds into the area where the enemy was massing and the attack never materialized. I was not happy to have the government say that I was expendable in Poland, as it had in Vietnam.
Once I arrived in Rome, part of my nuclear non-proliferation portfolio was the US-North Korea nuclear agreement overseen by KEDO, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. Under this agreement one of the US responsibilities was to supply North Korea with a certain amount of fuel oil to keep their electrical generators going until the nuclear reactors promised under the agreement came on line. This cost the US about $2 million per year, as I recall. However, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee refused to appropriate the money to pay for the fuel oil. Thus, part of my job in Rome was to go hat in hand to the Italians (representing both Italy and the EU) asking them for money to pay for the fuel oil so that the US would not be in breach of the agreement. Again, I was horrified at the immoral US position. We had an agreement with the rouge state of North Korea, but we were about to be guilty of breaching it, rather than the North Koreans, unless the Europeans helped us out. I don’t know how this issue was resolved; I left before it was, when Italy’s EU Presidency ended, and the battle for money was being fought in Washington as well as in Rome. I do not think that we breached the agreement at that time because of financial constraints, but I was not happy that there was even a question that we might do so.