As Cuba’s dissident crackdown peaks, Obama trip ‘could be a subversive moment’



Even some supporters of President Barack Obama’s moves to strengthen relations with Cuba are questioning the timing of his planned visit to the Communist island next month, after arrests of dissidents by Raul Castro’s government reached a five-year high, Bloomberg reports:

Obama vowed Thursday that he’ll promote human rights during his historic visit, the first by a sitting American president since 1928. But more than a year of warming relations between the nations, separated by just 90 miles, have so far failed to slow the Cuban government’s crackdown on political dissidents.

The Madrid-based Cuban Observatory on Human Rights said 1,474 people, including 512 women, were “arbitrarily” detained in January. The arrests have been climbing since the December 2014 announcement that the two governments would improve ties. 

“A presidential visit should occasion a broader progress on the human-rights agenda. And I haven’t seen any changes on that front,” said Christopher Sabatini (right), an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who has supported the rapprochement:

Sabatini said Cuba can take a number of steps to show progress ahead of Obama’s March 21-22 visit, including freeing its remaining political prisoners, allowing greater freedom of expression, providing citizens with more access to the Internet or joining the Organization of American States, which would place it under the scrutiny of the regional body’s human rights commission.

‘Relatively Easy’

“Some of these are relatively easy to do,” said Sabatini [a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy]. “It’s not like we’re asking them to hold free and fair elections tomorrow.”

Since the Obama opening, the Communist authorities have cracked down all the harder on democrats and dissidents, the National Review reports:

Oscar Biscet (left), the Cuban democracy leader, said, “I feel as though I have been abandoned on the battlefield.” Berta Soler, another democracy leader — the leader of the Ladies in White — said, “The European Union, the U.S.A., Pope Francis — they have turned their backs on us.”

But other Cuban dissidents are mostly supportive, Reuters reports.

“Any gesture of solidarity, any words or gestures, any contact with the peaceful opposition would be well received by the majority of the population,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, which says it has about 3,000 members, making it the largest opposition group in Cuba.

Obama’s trip could become a challenge for the Communist regime, given that the American president is beloved in the country, where he can expect a rapturous welcome, especially from the island’s large black population, the Wall Street Journal reports:

“It could be a very subversive moment,” said Rafael Rojas, a Cuba expert at Mexico’s CIDE University. Other experts were skeptical Mr. Obama’s trip would advance the cause of greater democratization in Cuba.

Javier Corrales, a Latin American expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Mr. Obama is so eager to normalize relations without negotiating any concessions that the U.S. “is very close to creating a situation where we now have a U.S.-backed dictatorship in Cuba.”

The normalization between Havana and Washington is having ripple effects across the region, helping to isolate Venezuela’s embattled socialist government in Latin America as the U.S. mobilizes hesitant allies in the region to take a harder line with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Cuba “deepens the crisis of Latin America’s radical left, which feels abandoned by Raul Castro,” Mr. Rojas said. He predicted Mr. Castro would also use the Communist Party congress to close ranks, and rhetorically emphasize the regime’s refusal to move quickly to implement deep economic or political changes.

Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams fears that Obama will only meet “a tame group of civil society types.” The President’s trip “could be salvaged–if Obama had a ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ moment,” he contends, “if he directly demanded free elections, and an end to the one-party rule, and free expression, and free trade unions, and demanded that every single political prisoner be released immediately.”

Cuba’s heroic dissidents deserve an opportunity to meet with the U.S. president and acquaint him with the real Cuba, analyst Ana Quintana writes for the National Interest. She criticizes “progressive” advocates of engagement who forget that the Castro regime embodies everything the left supposedly hates: military dictatorships, racism, economic imperialism and repression of freedom of expression, and who turn a blind eye to Cuba’s ‘Nelson Mandela,’ Jorge Luis Garcia, commonly known as Antunez (left):

A dissident of Afro-Cuban descent and a former political prisoner of seventeen years, Antunez still fights for freedom on the island. Despite his high profile (he was House Speaker John Boehner’s guest at last year’s State of the Union address), he and his wife have been repeatedly arrested and brutalized by Cuban security services. Their only crime is being political dissidents who want a free and democratic Cuba. RTWT

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