Whether or not one believes it was advisable for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson to have gone to Havana, the hard fact is that he came home with something of value. The Rev. Mr. Jackson came home with 26 political prisoners.
One can understand the administration's embarrassment. Not a single prisoner has been released as the result of anything it has done. It should be remembered that the Carter administration negotiated a prisoner parole program with the Castro government under which thousands of political prisoners were freed. By contrast, the Reagan administration, rather than working to free prisoners, has done the exact opposite; it has refused even to honor the commitment of the US government undertaken in May of 1980 to accept for entry into the US some 1,500 former political prisoners.
Castro's agreement to consider taking back the Mariel excludables was an even more significant concession won by Jackson. The administration has tried to play down its importance.
The truth is that since February of 1981 the Castro government had indicated its willingness to begin talks on a wide range of immigration issues, including the return of the excludables. The administration did not even respond. Only in May of 1983 did it get around to demanding that Cuba take back the excludables. Cuba responded that it would discuss this along with other immigration issues, as indicated in its earlier overtures, but that it would not accede to unilateral demands. Finally, in May of this year, the administration indicated its readiness to begin talks. Apparently suspicious that this was simply an electoral ploy, the Cubans suggested talks not begin until after the November elections. Now, along comes Jackson, who not only persuades the Cubans to begin discussions immediately, but also to focus on the question of the excludables.
In return for these concessions on the Cuban side, there were none on ours. Indeed, Jackson was not empowered to make any. The only thing the Cubans got in return were some indications from Jackson that he favored improved relations between the United States and Cuba, and as that was only a matter of restating the obvious, it was a free ride from the standpoint of the US.
Was there any deeper meaning? Did his trip open the way for some meaningful US-Cuban dialogue? Unfortunately, no. First of all, the Reagan administration is not interested in improving relations with Cuba, and, second, even if it were, it wouldn't be likely to accept Jackson's indication as to how to proceed. That is not in the nature of politics.
This is not to say Castro isn't sincere in wanting to improve relations. He is. But he is also realistic enough to know the administration isn't. Hence, the gestures he made during Jackson's visit were directed at Jackson and at US public opinion, not at the administration. Castro is playing for the future, not the present.
The administration was of course quick to say that Castro had not really offered anything worthwhile. There was no evidence, for example, according to Secretary of State George Shultz, of any willingness on Castro's part to give up the export of revolution. But this administration is so blinded by anti-Castro emotionalism that any evidence to that effect would be missed. When in late 1981 the Cubans suspended military shipments to Nicaragua in hopes of improving the atmosphere for negotiations, a suspension that in his recent book Alexander Haig acknowledged to have taken place, the administration ignored it. When in July of last year Castro offered to withdraw his military personnel from Central America if the US would do likewise, the administration side-stepped that offer also. Perhaps the particular formula offered by the Cubans wasn't acceptable, but the offer itself opened the way to negotiating one that might have been had the administration been interested. It wasn't. All the while it has insisted that there is no evidence of change on Cuba's part. Clearly, this administration has a mind-set against negotiations with Cuba which Jesse Jackson isn't likely to change no matter how many times he travels to Havana.