Cubama: what President Obama should say about Cuba



Cuba has released four dissidents and put them on a plane to the U.S. just days before President Barack Obama’s historic trip to the island as part of the rapprochement with President Raúl Castro’s communist government, the Wall Street Journal reports:

The four dissidents—Niorvis Rivera, Aracelio Riviaux, Vladimir Morera and Jorge Ramirez—were permitted to leave Havana on Tuesday, Ovidio Martin Castellanos, a member of the dissident , said in an interview Thursday. Obama administration officials didn’t immediately confirm or deny the arrival of the dissidents on U.S. soil.

“The Cuban government has used this tactic in the past,” said Marc Hanson, senior Cuba analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It’s clear there’s more tolerance for dialogue, for more discussions about current events and discussing arguments for why things could or should be changed,” he said. “The limits are when people organize politically to change the governing system.”

President Obama’s forthcoming visit comes as preparations are being completed for the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), notes Carl Gershman (right), president of the National Endowment for Democracy. The main order of business will be to establish the process for transferring power to a new generation of Cuban leaders in 2018, when Raúl Castro will step down as president, he writes for the Washington Post:

While this change will mark the end of the Castro era in Cuban politics, the regime has made clear that it considers the current system “irrevocable ” and that it won’t renounce a single one of its “revolutionary and anti-imperialist” principles….The chief item on the agenda of the Seventh Congress will be the consideration of a new electoral law for the general election in 2018, when Castro’s successor will be chosen.

Under the current system, according to the independent blogger Yoani Sánchez (left), “the electoral machinery is strictly controlled” to ensure whatever outcomes the regime wants, Gershman adds:

Control is enforced at the grass roots by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which … determine the voter lists and oversee town hall assemblies at which candidates are nominated by a show of hands. The overall voter registry is administered by the Ministry of the Interior, which is a military institution. There is no secret ballot, and fear of reprisals blocks the selection of candidates who might have “counter-revolutionary” views. Campaigning is not allowed, candidates are banned from putting forward a program, and there is no right to ask what a candidate thinks about a specific problem.

Antonio Rodiles, who heads a group called the Forum for Rights and Liberties, said he worried that Castro will handpick a successor from within his own family, “and at that point the American people and companies will have interests here, and it will be even harder to get a change in government.”

But Cuban democrats are not ready to accept the status quo, Gershman adds:

Rosa María Payá (right), the daughter of the martyred activist Oswaldo Payá, who died in 2012 under suspicious circumstances, has launched a campaign called Cuba Decides that builds upon her father’s famous Varela Project and calls for a plebiscite on whether to hold free, fair and multiparty elections. And just last week a coalition of pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations called Another 18 (#Otro18) presented the draft of an alternative electoral law to the National Assembly and held a news conference and a forum on the theme “For Freedom of Choice.”

The United States can only encourage and incentivize the shape of Cuban reform. It cannot control its course, Yale University researcher Michael J. Bustamente writes for Foreign Affairs:

In that regard, one hopes that the president will also listen to representatives of a dynamic gray zone in Cuban society—those who identify not only as loyalists or dissidents but as constructive critics, intellectuals, anti-imperialists, democratic socialists, or simply small-business owners operating under intense obstacles.

“The improvement of U.S.-Cuba relations has a salutary impact in Cuba, in the U.S. and in all Latin America,” said Jorge Dominguez, an expert on Cuba and professor of international affairs at Harvard University. Still, for all the historic change, Cuba has yet to take the steps that many Americans say are needed to normalize relations, the LA Times adds.

“President Obama never went into this with a quid pro quo approach,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “But it’s clear that the Cubans aren’t providing many quos.”

Nevertheless, the “trend lines are in the right direction,” Harvard’s Domínguez says of the country’s human rights record. “But Cuba is and has been and remains an authoritarian regime.”

Mr Obama’s critics conclude that he has given the Castros a free pass. Yet Cuba was never about to become a democracy overnight, The Economist notes:

Because the regime remains entrenched, political change is more likely to come gradually and from within. In 2018 Mr Castro intends to stand down as president. His likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, was born after the Castros’ revolution in 1959. Cubans will judge him on his ability to improve their lives, which will require more economic reforms. The hope must be that, as Cuba becomes more prosperous and connected, political liberalisation will follow.

But Democratic Senator Robert Menendez is skeptical that engagement will facilitate democratization.

“Instead of having the free world’s leader honor Latin America’s only dictatorship with a visit, he could have visited one of the 150 countries which he has not visited, including several in Latin America that are democracies, Menendez (D, NJ) said on the Senate floor yesterday (above):

The President has negotiated a deal with the Castros, and I understand his desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake that goes to the underlying atmosphere in Cuba and whether or not the Cuban people – still repressed and still imprisoned – will benefit from the President’s legacy, or will it be the Castro Regime that reaps the benefits. Unless the Castros are compelled to change the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people, the answer to this won’t be any different: The Castro Regime will be the beneficiary.

“At the very least the President’s first stops should be meetings with internationally-recognized dissidents,” Menendez added, citing U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet (right); the European Union’s Sakharov prize recipients, Guillermo Farinas (above) and Rosa Maria Paya; and Berta Soler and the Ladies in White (below).

But businessman Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said “the mere presence of President Obama in Cuba will be powerful. You have the young African-American president and leader of the free world and an aging white leader of a system that is tired and worn-out,” he told the Miami Herald.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice vigorously defended the policy of engagement at a meeting on Thursday.

“As President Obama has repeatedly said, we know that change won’t come to Cuba overnight. But the old approach – trying to isolate Cuba, for more than 50 years – clearly didn’t work,” she told the Atlantic Council. “We believe that engagement – including greater trade, travel and ties between Americans and Cubans – is the best way to help create opportunity and spur progress for the Cuban people.”

But democracy and human rights advocates have reservations.

“Obama is absolutely right to promote engagement, but not as an end in itself,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “His message on human rights needs to be forceful and specific, or the trip may be remembered by Cubans who have suffered half a century of repression as little more than bonding over baseball.”

Obama will be welcomed with open arms by the Cuban people, says Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst for IHS Country Risk.  “They will be expecting President Obama to deliver a key message to Cuban society in terms of improving democracy and freedom.”

“Now people are expecting that this Congress will deal with the issues of political reform. Everyone is expecting that change will be gradual, but hope something more plural will come as a result of this: more direct elections, more room, more autonomy,” said Moya-Ocampos.


Politically, communist — and post-communist — parties often prove to be more resilient than you’d expect, one analyst notes: Cuba’s communists are unlikely to simply roll over and play dead. As a matter of fact, they’ve been arresting more rather than fewer opposition figures.

“It is crucial President Obama focuses on human rights and political reform in Cuba,” said Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who is working to organize protests during Obama’s visit. “Otherwise his visit is an insult to the victims and dissidents whose lives have been made worse since the U.S. recognition” of Cuba.

When former president Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in 2002, he used an unprecedented public address carried live on state radio and television to urge that Cuba “join the community of democracies,” and to praise the Varela Project, which most Cubans knew nothing about, the NED’s Gershman adds:

Obama needs to do at least as much when he visits next week. Given the timing of his visit, right before the party congress and at a moment when Cubans are beginning to think about the potentially historic election in 2018, his endorsement of the proposals advanced by Another 18 and for the cause of real democracy in Cuba could have far-reaching consequences. RTWT

“President Obama should make this an opportunity to voice strong support for human rights and genuine freedom, for the people of Cuba” said Carlos Ponce, Freedom House director for Latin America programs. “He should make clear that in exchange for closer political and economic ties, the United States expects genuine reform – including the release of political prisoners, ending spurious ‘preventive’ detentions, genuinely free elections, and guarantees for freedom of association.”

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2016, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015, and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2015.

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