Obama in Cuba: 90 Miles To Go and Promises to Keep



The Obama administration says it is making it easier for people to travel to Cuba, lifting limits on money travelers can spend there. The announcement, made Tuesday, came just days before President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, The Atlantic reports:

The new rules allow for “people-to-people educational travel,” meaning that anyone with a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities” can go.

The new coincides with reports that 300 opposition activists were detained over the weekend, just days before Obama’s visit. Most of the reported arrests were of members of the outlawed opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), active mainly in eastern Cuba.

Obama promised in a letter to the prominent dissident group Ladies in White (above) that he would raise human rights issues with Cuban President Raul Castro during his visit, Reuters reports:

“We take seriously the concerns you have raised,” said Obama’s letter, which group leader Berta Soler read to about two dozen Ladies in White and other supporters gathered in a Havana park.

“I will raise these issues directly with President Castro,” said Obama, who called the Ladies “an inspiration to human rights movements around the world.”

But the president is heading to a country that has shown little inclination to unclench its fist, notes Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and editor of the www.LatinAmericaGoesGlobal.org policy analysis website.

In the 14 months since Obama’s executive actions permitted greater U.S. personal and commercial contact with the socialist island, the autocratic Cuban regime has failed to meaningfully improve its human rights record, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an unofficial human rights group, in January alone, Cuban officials temporarily detained 1,414 independent activists, subjecting 56 of them to physical abuse. Meanwhile, the regime has actually tightened its already harsh controls on freedom of expression and freedom of association. Even the one possible concession from the Cubans, allowing a handful of former political prisoners one trip outside the country, was, at best, a token gesture, and likely made with the hope that they wouldn’t come back. 

“Extending a hand to Cuba is just the way to bring a breath of hope and solidarity to the country’s long-suffering citizens — even if the government keeps its fist firmly clenched,” argues Sabatini (left), a former Latin America director at the National Endowment for Democracy. “It all depends on President Obama’s willingness to break the formal diplomatic script that the Cuban government no doubt wants him to follow.”

Last week, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, spent Friday meeting with Cuban-American students, activists, members of Cuba’s civil society, exiled Cubans and journalists, VOA reports:

He said he told the groups the White House goal isn’t to topple the Castro government, but to open up society through diplomatic and trade relations.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term,” Rhodes said. “Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”

During the last few days, the Center for a Free Cuba distributed more than 2,000 copies of a special publication – 90 Miles To Go and Promises to Keep – in front of the White House, to media, and to Congressional offices:

It is part of a campaign asking President Barack Obama to announce before travelling to Havana that the beating of peaceful women dissidents will no longer take place in Cuba. As recently as Sunday, two days ago, these women who go to church holding a flower as a symbol of freedom, justice, and national reconciliation were again abused, beaten, and detained by the Castro dynasty’s political police. As an additional outrage, the police took some of the Ladies’ clothes off. We are including a copy of this special publication. Several thousand emails with a facsimile of the publication were also sent.

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