Cabañas replaces Bolaños at Cuba’s Washington mission
Jorge Alberto Bolaños Suárez, Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States, has left his post after four years and nine months on the job. He’s being replaced by José R. Cabañas Rodríguez, an official at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about whom little is known.
Bolaños, 75, was feted at an Oct. 10 reception on Capitol Hill. The low-key event was attended by 30 anti-embargo activists, academics and friends of the departing chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
The farewell party — coming amidst persistent rumors of Fidel Castro’s impending demise — was co-sponsored by three organizations opposed to U.S. policy on Cuba: the Center for International Policy (CIP), Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA).
No U.S. officials or foreign diplomats were invited to the party for Bolaños — a media-shy diplomat compared to his predecessor, Dagoberto Rodríguez, who maintained a much higher profile during his 2001-07 posting in Washington.
“Jorge Bolaños is one of Cuba’s most distinguished diplomats,” declared CIP’s Wayne Smith, who used to head the U.S. Interests Section in Havana more than 30 years ago.
“We all thought when he was assigned here that it was a tremendous sign, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, that there would be a change in U.S. policy. But we have not seen the dramatic change we hoped for.”
Bolaños himself acknowledged that he was unable to change the course of U.S.-Cuba ties.
“I came here with goodwill. I always say that ambassadors are for building relations, not destroying them,” the diplomat said.
“The United States and Cuba, only 90 miles apart, have many common interests. The history of U.S.-Cuba relations is full of chapters, some good and some not so good. We think it is time for both peoples to understand each other. I cannot be happy if this is delayed.”
Mavis Anderson of LAWG said she counts Bolaños among her friends.
“The ambassador was here at a time which many people felt could have been seminal in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was here at a time of expectations,” Anderson told us.
“President Obama opened up family travel, which was very important, as well as educational, religious and people-to-people travel. But that wasn’t as much as we had hoped. Now we will need to defend that so we go forwards, not backwards.”
Another admirer of Bolaños is James Early, chief of cultural heritage at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“It’s an honor to have Cuba’s main diplomat in the United States here in this room, representing the people of Cuba,” he said.
“Whatever one may think about that government, it is a government brought to power by its people,” said Early — expressing a sentiment that is clearly not shared by the majority of Cuban exiles. “The American people are beginning to recognize that we do not have the right to tell the Cuban people what kind of life they want to lead.”
Not much is known about José Cabañas, the man who’s replacing Bolaños effective Nov. 1 — other than that he’s about 50 years old, that he graduated from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales, and that he was Cuba’s ambassador to Austria.
In 1984, Cabañas wrote a book entitled “Radio Martí: Una nueva agresión,” about the U.S. government’s attempts to turn average Cubans against the Castro regime through propaganda radio broadcasts from Miami.
Washington lawyer Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba-related issues, met Cabañas in 1998. At that time, he was Bolaños’ deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minrex).
“Under difficult conditions, he [Bolaños] left U.S.-Cuba relations better than he found them in areas like supporting environmental cooperation and scientific exchanges,” Muse told CubaNews. “The relations between our two governments may be strained, but NGOs have never been stronger, and people-to-people travel has helped in that way, too.”
Neither Bolaños nor any of the other speakers mentioned Alan Gross, the Maryland man who was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for subversion. His detention has blocked efforts at improving relations between Washington and Havana.
Smith, who in 1981 resigned his Havana diplomatic post to protest the Reagan administration’s policies on Cuba, said a Nov. 6 victory by GOP candidate Mitt Romney will send U.S.-Cuba relations back to the dark ages.
In fact, the pro-embargo Romney has already vowed that if elected, he’ll rescind people-to-people travel and make it more difficult even for Cuban-Americans to visit the island.
“If Mr. Romney wins, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Smith. “Fortunately, Mr. Bolaños doesn’t have to worry about that.”
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