Cubama: a ‘new day’ or a ‘slap in the face’ for U.S.-Cuba relations


Change is coming to Cuba, President Barack Obama told his Cuban counterpart today, after  Raul Castro called on the U.S. to lift longstanding trade and other restrictions as part of the normalization of relations between Cuba and its longtime Cold War-era foe, AP reports.

Obama said he had raised “very serious differences” the U.S. has with Cuba on democracy and human rights, but portrayed those difficult conversations as a prerequisite to closer relations. Crediting Cuba for making progress as a nation, Obama said part of normalizing relations between the two countries means “we discuss these differences directly.”

“The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans — not by anybody else,” Obama said. “At the same time, as we do wherever we go around the world, I made it clear the U.S. will continue to speak up about democracy, including the right of the Cuban people to decide their own future.”

Wi-Fi and broadband access

“One of the things that we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island,” Mr. Obama said. “Change is going to happen here, and I think Raúl Castro understands that.”

But in a sign of the regime’s authoritarian approach to dissent, regime operatives attacked and detained dissident democracy advocates just hours before Obama’s plane landed. The arrests were a “slap in the face” for the visiting delegation, according to one observer.

The Center for a Free Cuba reports that that Berta Soler (left), the leader of the Ladies in White, and her husband, former political prisoner Angel Moya, were today detained by Cuba’s political police.

At least one of the detained activists, Antonio Rodiles (right), said he had been invited to meet with Obama Tuesday at an event for civil society leaders, Huffington Post reports:

Another activist who was invited to meet with Obama, Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban National Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation, was detained at the airport by security forces Saturday for an unrelated event, according to Human Rights Watch. Others say they were told by police to stay in their homes over the course of Obama’s visit.

“You only have human rights when you belong to groups affiliated with the government,” Rodiles said in an interview ahead of the march.

“It is standard procedure in Cuba that when an important dignitary is visiting, the security services harass or threaten dissidents,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Latin America division. “They make them aware that there will be consequences if they try to do something, such as hold a demonstration or give an interview to a foreign reporter.”

Under Raúl Castro, he said, repressive policies had been more “pragmatic” — there had been a large number of detentions of dissidents and activists, but for much shorter periods than when his brother Fidel was in charge.

“He is aware of the international price that Cuba pays,” Mr Vivanco told the Financial Times.

‘Preventive repression’

“We thought there would be a truce, but it wasn’t to be,” said Elizardo Sánchez, who runs the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. The arrests had taken place “in the moment that Obama was flying in the air to Cuba,” he told the New York Times:

“It’s the climate of intimidation the government is creating for Obama’s visit,” said Mr. Sanchez, a graying, steady critic of President Raúl Castro’s government. “Right now what you see is preventive repression, so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here.”…. Other countries certainly engage in similar acts of stage management and repression — China, for example. And José Daniel Ferrer, an opposition activist in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, said that while pressure from the government had increased in recent months, it was largely in response to growing activism.

“It’s the third law of Newton: The greater the actions for democracy, the greater the repressive reaction by the regime,” he said.

The historic visit to the island is seen by some analysts as a test of the Obama Doctrine of constructive engagement with authoritarian regimes.

One of the main risks for the president is that he ends up with the sort of lopsided engagement that has characterized relations with China since Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to Beijing — a relatively open welcome for American companies but a blunt refusal to talk about political reform, the FT adds.

“If it appears as if he is opening the doors for large American companies to come to Cuba but that human rights concerns are being brushed aside, that will send a very awkward image for Obama,” says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America expert at Columbia University and a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Others suggest that engagement is less likely to lead to political liberalization than a form of authoritarian capitalism along the lines of China’s ‘Market-Leninism.’

But some observers argue that engagement is helping Cubans to eke out great political space.

Especially younger Cubans, raised in revolution but desiring a connection to the world, are constantly taking advantage of the little political space they can find, in the media, in the arts or through technology. And then they push boundaries, if delicately, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“It is more tolerated now,” said Ted Henken, a frequent visitor to Cuba and professor of black and Latino studies at Baruch College. “The government is constantly cracking down each time they cross a line, but the line is moving.”

The Obama administration “knows that Fidel Castro is about to turn 90,” and that Raúl is only a few years behind, said Guillermo Fariñas (above, left), head of the United Anti-Totalitarian Forum. “A new generation is coming, with ever less moral authority” to claim it is promoting a popular revolution that took place long before most Cubans were born, he told the Washington Post:

Nearly a dozen dissidents are expected at the meeting with Obama. They have been told they will be picked up at their residences by U.S. officials and taken to the U.S. Embassy two hours before the meeting, presumably to avoid the past government practice of sequestering in their homes those it does not want meeting with prominent foreign visitors. At the embassy, they will watch and listen to Obama’s broadcast speech to the nation. Most said they were going to wait to hear what he has to tell them before deciding what they want to ask the U.S. president.

“Ten minutes will be enough for him to say a lot of things,” Ferrer said of the speech, scheduled to last 40 minutes. “It’s a unique opportunity,” he said. “Every Cuban is going to want to see if he projects an image of non-
complicity with the government, if he will be transparent.”

Symbolic gesture

“There is the possibility of reform in April, but we must understand that the group in power for 57 years want to remain in power and keep their privileges,” said democracy campaigner Rosa María Payá, who has launched a petition calling for Obama to support the idea of a referendum during his visit to the island, the Guardian adds:

Payá wants the US president to make a symbolic gesture against impunity by laying flowers at the grave of her father, a leading democracy campaigner who died in mysterious circumstances in 2012. Cuban authorities say Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash. His family contends that government agents were following him and may have forced him off the road. They believe he is a victim of terror tactics used by the communist government to maintain one-party rule.

“He should ask for the specific tool of a plebiscite so that Cuban people can decide their future for the first time in 60 years,” she said. “I hope he will support the Cuban people and not just talk to the leaders and have his picture taken.”

“We Cubans know what to do but we can’t do it alone because the Cuban government has weapons, and they are willing to use them – as we saw with the murder of my father,” Payá said. “We need the support of the international community.”

Legacy issue

“Obama would like to be remembered as the president who ended the Cold War in Latin America and normalized relations with Cuba, so he needs to do as much as he can to make it difficult for the next president to reverse this,” Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the New York Times:

But suspicion of the United States remains potent in Cuba. This month, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, published a lengthy editorial admonishing Mr. Obama not to expect Cuba to “abandon its revolutionary ideals” as part of the opening.

While some critics charge that the administration has made too many concessions to the Communist regime, reducing the prospects for democratization, others contend that the rapprochement is of limited geopolitical consequence.

“The United States used to support the notion of a democratic transition in Cuba, but now what we have is a radical shift to a policy that will only reinforce the hold on power of the hemisphere’s last repressive military dictatorship,” says Ana Quintana, Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “We’re definitely seeing support for some sort of change, but I don’t think we’ll see a significant surge of support in Congress for a policy that does not have at its center the freedom of the Cuban people.”

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass urged against making too much out of the opening to Cuba, or how it reflects Obama’s larger philosophy of engagement and breaking convention, Politico reports:

“It may work here for a unique set of reasons, but when he tried it in the Middle East from the Cairo speech on, it didn’t work — on steroids,” Haass said.

Nonetheless, Haass said, for all the history of Cuba in the world and the American psyche, at this point the island nation is so isolated politically and economically that Obama’s got leeway.

“Even if this approach doesn’t succeed,” Haass said, “it’s not as if it’s an enormous geopolitical risk.”

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