The Miami Herald
January 8, 2001 

 How can opinions threaten dialogue?

 A recent shake-up in the Cuban Committee for Democracy, an exile group that
 promotes dialogue with the island, has brought to light the tricky nuances of
 attempting meaningful exchanges with the Cuban government.

 It was reported last week that one of the group's top officials had resigned amid
 speculation that a planned conference between exiles and Cubans on the island
 had been put in danger by the expressed views of the CCD's new leader.

 The tension flared over the writings of new president Alejandro Portes, a Princeton
 sociologist and respected researcher on the South Florida immigrant experience.

 Most scandalous to the Fidel Castro government was Portes' characterization of
 mid-level Cuban officials living the fat life, while less privileged comrades suffered

 Portes wrote a provocative analysis of Cuba's identity as ``the little besieged
 country,'' a convenient image kept alive in large part by U.S. sanctions against the
 island government.

 In the article ``Strategic Neglect,'' published in the fall issue of The American
 Prospect, Portes examines Cuba's decades-old survival tactics, particularly its
 dependence on U.S. hostility to keep afloat its embattled image.

 No wonder the Castro government is up in arms over the article. Portes has
 exposed the Cuban game: appear to receive dialogue, but reject substantial
 exchange -- and change -- at all cost.

 That such an article evokes even a stir from a regime that claims to welcome
 engagement is telling. In the eyes of the world, the chief obstacle to open
 relations with Cuba is the ``right-wing exile lobby.'' Popular opinion usually depicts
 exiles as the intransigents who reject views that are different from that of the

 But in fact the great intolerance rises out of Havana insecurity. The very fact that
 a conference designed to promote dialogue could be endangered by the opinions
 of a scholar should tell us something about Cuba's true stand on open talks: We'll
 let you talk as long as you say what we want to hear.

 Isn't the core of healthy dialogue well-presented differences of opinions?
 Apparently not in Havana, where officials still see a need to skew exchanges by
 picking and choosing who will get exit permits to travel to conferences abroad.

 ``In defense of this intransigence, Fidel and his collaborators are willing to meet
 with outsiders, host foreign leaders and delegations, and posture as reasonable
 and tolerant people. But any genuine political or economic threat is met with an
 iron fist,'' writes Portes, who believes the U.S. government could strip Cuba of its
 ``besieged country'' motif by lifting its sanctions.

 Ostensibly, the lifting of sanctions is what Cuba also wants.

 But is it really?

 Portes notes the curious episode of José Imperatori, the Cuban diplomat ordered
 kicking and screaming out of Washington, D.C., last February for his suspected
 role in a spy ring. The defiant Imperatori even went on a hunger strike to proclaim
 his government's innocence.

 ``Why should an educated man like Imperatori defend a regime that he knows to
 be economically and ideologically bankrupt?'' asks Portes. ``The standard answer
 is privilege.''

 And the larger answer, as this scholar reveals, is Cuba's need to stay loyal to its
 socialism -- not to any Marxist ideals, but to whatever keeps the revolution going,
 be it tourism, foreign investments, cash remittances, and, yes, the U.S. embargo.

 A true opening, Portes concludes, might turn Castro into ``just another
 small-country dictator.''

 I guess that's why such opinions can endanger attempts at dialogue.