Opinion: In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change
In 1996, spurred by an appetite for revenge, American lawmakers passed a bill spelling out a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and “assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.” The Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Cuba shot down two small civilian American planes, has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.
Far from accomplishing that goal, the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.
The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. But it must chart a new approach informed by the lessons of nearly two decades of failed efforts to destabilize the Castro regime.
During the final years of the Clinton administration, the United States spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under Helms-Burton. That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world. The United States Agency for International Development, better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.