In 1958, when he was 13 years old, Col. Larry Wilkerson visited Cuba with his grandmother for the first time. “She was one of the most influential people in my life,” recalled the retired U.S. Army colonel. “She said to me as I was getting off the boat in Havana, ‘You’ll see a lot of gambling houses, and houses of ill repute. Don’t go into any of them.”
Half a century later, following an illustrious career closely linked with that of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Wilkerson recently made it back to Cuba for a two-week fact-finding mission.
As with his previous trip, he was accompanied by influential people—and came away more convinced than ever that his old boss was right.
“I can’t tell you how many times Colin Powell and I talked about Cuba,” Wilkerson, 63, told The Washington Diplomat. “He might disavow everything I say now, but his exact words were: ‘Our Cuba policy is the dumbest policy on the face of the Earth.’ We talked about it when he was joint chiefs of staff, when I worked for him in a private capacity, and when he became secretary of state.”
While his former boss earns big bucks making speeches, Wilkerson has become an academic. Currently, he’s with the George Washington University’s Honors Program, where he lectures undergraduate students on national security decision making since World War II. He also teaches a graduate course at the College of William and Mary on case studies in power.
Wilkerson left the State Department on Jan. 19, 2005, and became a private citizen—but he didn’t go quietly into the night. The turning point for him came when Foggy Bottom learned in advance that potentially damaging photos of U.S. prisoner abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib were about to be released to the media.
“The tradition for a soldier is that you don’t speak out. But when I encountered the detainee abuse issue and some of the truth that was beginning to come out, I couldn’t hold my peace any longer,” he said. “The abuse issue weighed heavily on me. My wife kept telling me that my obligation to my country was stronger than to anyone I worked with.”
Wilkerson became vocal in his opposition to the war in Iraq, publicly accusing Vice President Richard Cheney and De_fense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of forming a “cabal” to hijack U.S. foreign pol_icy. He’s also denounced Bush for his “cowboyism” and views Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, as “extremely weak.”
In an interview with PBS in 2006, Wilkerson said the speech that his former boss made before the United Nations in 2003 outlining the case for war with Iraq included falsehoods of which Powell had never been made aware. But Wilkerson admitted: “My participation in that presentation at the U.N. constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council.”
It’s clear from our interview that Wilkerson has little respect for Cheney, though he declined to place all the blame for Iraq on the vice president. “You can’t ever say that a fateful decision by any president to use military force and kill other people was for a single reason. Our government does not work that way; there were a number of reasons,” Wilkerson told The Diplomat. “If you ask Paul Wolfowitz, we went to war to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. Rumsfeld? To prove that he had transformed the military. Cheney? For all of those reasons, plus oil. I think he had talked himself into the fact that there was a possible nexus between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. These men didn’t listen to anybody, only to themselves.
“We’ve got to talk to our enemies,” he continued. “We haven’t had a leader in the White House in a long time. We also need to get back on some sort of strategy vis-à-vis Russia. They’re awash in petrodollars, and if they succeed in aligning themselves with Iran, they’ll have a cartel that’ll make OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] pale by comparison. There will be a huge, uncontrollable transfer of wealth, and West Texas crude could jump to 0 a barrel. I think it’s clearly possible for this to happen.”
But beyond the Middle East, the former soldier argues that we need to pay more attention to another region of the world where he thinks the United States has stumbled badly: Latin America.
“We’re not using our power very well in general, and certainly not vis-à-vis Latin America,” said Wilkerson. “The last time we had an effective foreign policy regarding Latin America was on Sept. 11, 2001, the day Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru, attending an OAS [Organization of American States] meeting on regional security. We occasionally send a hospital ship down there, or we put National Guard reserves in Honduras to build this school or that school, but the fact is we pay very little attention to Latin America, and I think that’s a grievous mistake. Latin Americans today are writing us off.”
And according to Wilkerson, no_where is Washington more off base than with regard to Cuba, where in mid-February, 81-year-old Fidel Castro resigned after nearly half a century as president. He was quickly replaced by younger brother Raúl, who is 76.
“Unlike what happened most of the time under his brother, I believe Raúl will empower the ministries in Cuba’s bureaucracy to begin examining ways to make the average person’s life in Cuba better,” Wilkerson predicted. “Since he’ll only be there for a very short time, it’s very important who he grooms—whether it’s individually or collectively—to take over the reins of leadership. At the same time, there could be a scramble for power. If it’s orchestrated smartly and wisely, we might look down the road a few years and see a collective leadership in power—a stable, functioning government kind of like what Deng Xiaoping began in China.”
Of course, how the United States responds to Cuba depends a lot on who will be occupying the White House this time next year. Virtually no one expects an improvement in bilateral relations as long as Bush remains in office.
“I hope the new president, whoever he or she is, will recognize the potential for a relationship with Cuba,” Wilkerson said. “We should conduct a policy review on how to open that relationship, recognizing each other’s sovereignty and be willing to accept shortcomings on the Cuban side,” he advised, noting that both Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “have the intellectual power and the political machine to conduct a review and begin to amend our policy. They are also more able to think in new terms, Obama more so than Hillary.”
And if Sen. John McCain wins? “I don’t want him to win because I think it’ll be a step back. It would be dangerous for this country,” said Wilkerson. “I don’t think he’s capable of thinking in 21st-century terms. He’s a Cold War warrior, but he doesn’t bring intellectual power to the Oval Office that we need right now in order to reshape our approach to the world.”
Wilkerson added: “Cuba is something the next president could turn around in six months. We’re not talking about Iran, Iraq, Turkey or Afghanistan here. We’re talking about a small country of 11 million people with whom we’ve had the most absurd policy for the last 50 years. This is a way to change American foreign policy instantly—by sending a signal to the American people that we’re going to talk to our enemies.”
And one of the quickest fixes to this absurd policy is to ease the “onerous,” “downright inhuman” travel restrictions on Americans wanting to visit the island. “It’s unconstitutional to prohibit you and me from traveling to Cuba,” Wilkerson complained. “I can travel to Pyongyang, but not to Havana. That’s absurd. I think 50 years is enough time to understand that our Cuba policy has failed.”
Even more troubling, according to Wilkerson, is the idea that U.S. national security is being hurt by what he calls “our idiotic Cuba policy.”
“The amount of time counterterrorist entities are spending just on enforcing the new restrictive Cuba laws is distracting from their ability to focus on more serious issues. It takes time away from finding people who are here for more nefarious purposes,” he said.
“I am also not happy with the fact that we may have the prospect of China drilling for oil on Cuba’s continental shelf, which is very close to Florida. Currents are such that if there were a medium-size oil spill, or God forbid a really big one, most of that would wind up on Florida’s eastern seaboard.”
Yet 10 successive presidents have treated Cuba as a threat to this country. In 2004, the Bush administration—backed by the trio of powerful Republican Cuban-American lawmakers from South Florida that includes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario Díaz-Balart—approved some of the toughest laws ever aimed at depriving the Castro regime of dollars.
These included sharply limiting the number and type of Americans who could visit Cuba and reducing the frequency of family visits to the island from once every year to once every three years. That has sparked outrage among some elements of the Cuban-American community in Florida that traditionally backed a tough line against the Castro regime.
“I have been fishing and hunting with some very powerful people in the Republican Party, who laugh at the idea of Cuba being a threat to the United States,” said Wilkerson. “What Bush did in 2004 was for political purposes, but they don’t know how to get out of it. This is a case of a policy being dictated by a few people in Florida.”
So what does Wilkerson recommend? “A very carefully orchestrated lifting of the embargo, in accordance with a strategy of ultimate rapprochement,” he said cautiously. “It might take three to five years to implement, but right away, I would eliminate travel restrictions. And I would lift the embargo at least for agricultural goods and petroleum exploration.”In the meantime, Powell’s old friend described the detention of suspected terrorists at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo as an enduring source of embarrassment throughout the region.
Wilkerson said that the United States “as long as a year ago exhausted the real intelligence potential” of the 300 or so detainees still being held at this tropical prison in eastern Cuba. Furthermore, he’s convinced that “we had people there we knew were innocent, and were working furiously to try and repatriate them so there wouldn’t be any lingering evidence of these people.”
Many of them, he’s concluded, had no connection to terrorism but were simply swept up in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and incarcerated based on false assumptions and innuendos—without any kind of status review process on the ground.
“What are you going to do with these people once you divorce them from the rule of law? Are you prepared to keep them in Gitmo until they’re 70, 80, 90 years old? The answer that came back from Donald Rumsfeld was, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Wilkerson added: “They do have some hardcore, frontline terrorists down there. But if the government takes a blanket approach to this, they’re gonna lose them. So they’re clearly willing to punish innocent people to keep the bad guys under lock and key,” he argued. “I think we should make a good-faith effort to determine who is less than hardcore, and either release them or repatriate them. Let that country deal with whoever they may be.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.