Confessions of Roger Noriega: Muscular diplomacy or law breaking?
In May, Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2003-2005), acknowledged he conspired with James Cason, chief of the United States Interest Section in Cuba (2002-2005), to violate a declared U.S. government policy of promoting in Cuba “a peaceful transition to a democratic system based on respect for rule of law, individual human rights and open economic and communication systems.” Noriega and Cason sought to promote chaos in the island.
Noriega did not refer to the chaos plan as coming from a secret decision of President Bush. Rather, Noriega and his cabal undertook their own initiative to foster instability. The effort led to the imprisonment of 75 Cuban citizens who followed the chaos-promotion instructions.
On May 20th, Noriega boasted on WQBA (Miami Univision station) about plotting with Cason to force the Cuban government to break its limited diplomatic relations with the United States. (Cason is running for mayor of Coral Gables, Florida).
In September 2002, Cason became Interest Section head in Havana. The Mexican magazine Proceso described his behavior as “contrary to diplomatic norms. Indeed, “just one month after presenting his credentials to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cason began receiving and visiting internal opponents, illegal but tolerated, of the Castro government.” Cason traveled throughout the island and met with dissidents, asking them to unify around a program – which he provided. “He also promised them with moral and material aid.” (La guerra en Irak hace maniobrar a la Habana,” April, 4, 2003)
Cason also broke diplomatic precedent by attending “a political event organized by dissidents seeking the end of President Fidel Castro's rule.” (AFP February 24, 2003)
A few days later, at a press conference, Cason declared “he had no fear” of the Cuban government. On March 6th, 2003, Fidel Castro called Cason “a thug with diplomatic immunity,” but Cuba could live without the Interest Sections – if that was the U.S. government’s goal. Cason, Castro conjectured, “might be seeking his expulsion or the closing of the Interest Section, which would block the congressional trend to lift trade and travel restrictions with the island.”
Former Interest Section chief Wayne Smith (1978-1982) described Cason’s behavior as “the bull-in-the-china-shop tactics.” Smith had “no doubts that the Bush Administration wants to close the Interest Section because they’re neither interested in travel, food and medicine sales or more normal exchanges." He hoped Havana would not fall for the trap. (Testimony, Committee on Senate Finance September 4, 2003)
Cuba neither expelled Cason nor closed the U.S. Interests Section. Instead, on March 18, 2003, Cuban police arrested Cason’s key Cuban collaborators. Applying a hitherto unused 1999 law, Cuban police arrested 75 “dissidents.”
AP’s Anita Snow noted, “The crackdown marked an end to the comparative lenience Cuban officials showed in recent years as independent journalists filed dispatches to Miami without government intervention, dissidents held news conferences and activists collected thousands of signatures for a petition calling for democratic reforms.” (March, 22, 2003; Reuters April 6, 2003)
Cuba’s Foreign Minister described the arrest of the 75 as unavoidable. Cason had to face the bitter fact: his ground troops, to whom he had pledged U.S. support, went to prison. Without the “dissidents” free to spark fires of discontent, Noriega’s plan to foment chaos fell flat.
In 2010, Cuba released most of the 75. But did high State Department officials conspire with underlings in the Interest Section to foster chaos in Cuba, a far cry from “the promotion of a peaceful transition” written into the Interest Section charter?
Noriega told Roberto Rodriguez, radio host of “What Others Do not Say” that he was “one of the architects” of a plan to destabilize Cuba in 2003. Noriega blamed the failure of his plan to force regime change in Cuba on Venezuela’s supplying dollars to Havana, “a lifesaver for Cuba. I think it was a great shame that this happened.”
Noriega described how “we opted for change even if it meant chaos. The Cubans had had too much stability over decades and it’s true that the U.S. bureaucracy and military preferred stability. But members of my team said stability is the enemy and chaos is the friend if you want to profoundly change a regime... Obviously, chaos was necessary in order to change reality.”
Did Bush really want a change in the Cuban government, Rodriguez wondered, or did he fear change might provoke a massive exodus? “The only option not on the table against Cuba was a military invasion,” Noriega said.
He told the radio audience how “we told our friend James Cason that if only he could provoke the Cuban regime to expel him from the country we could respond by closing the Cuban Interest Section in Washington.”
Noriega taunted “Cuban intelligence … because we spoke openly on the phone and didn’t hide our intentions and that is what had to be acknowledged here in the U.S. administration.” But Noriega’s personal desires did not get formally acknowledged because they countered the words of the Interest Section Charter: peaceful not hostile behavior.
Do government officials conspiring to change policy without a constitutional basis constitute a violation of U.S. law?
Can the victims of Noriega’s bungling -- the 75 and their families -- file lawsuits for damages?
Should Roger and James seek legal counsel?
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Counterpunch published his BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. Nelson Valdes is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico.