US envoy condemns Cuba rights record: Obama playing a long game


Deputy US Secretary of State Antony Blinken today condemned a surge in arrests of activists in Cuba, three weeks before President Barack Obama’s historic trip to the Communist-ruled island:

Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council, Blinken said Obama will stress the need for democracy and free political expression in Cuba during the March 21-22 visit, the first by a US president since 1928.

“In Cuba, we are increasingly concerned about the government’s use of short-term detentions of peaceful activists, which reached record numbers in January,” Blinken said. 

Obama’s strategy is “to weave a web of economic and diplomatic ties that create self-interested reasons for Cuban leaders to change,” according to William M. LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.

“The more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information unfettered by censorship, the more you are laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are going to be coming over time,” the president explained, adding that Washington will continue to “push, prod, nudge” Cuban leaders to do better on human rights.

While critics denounce engagement as a betrayal of the Cuban people, the Cuban people themselves overwhelmingly support it, LeoGrande writes for The New York Times:

In April 2015, an independent poll on the island found that 97 percent of the 1,200 Cubans sampled thought better relations with the United States would be good for Cuba. And lest anyone think people were afraid to speak honestly, the poll also found that Mr. Obama was more popular than either Fidel or Raúl Castro (80 percent positive and only 17 percent negative, as compared with 50 percent negative for Fidel and 48 percent negative for Raúl). …

To be sure, some prominent Cuban dissidents have criticized his approach. Jorge Luis García Pérez — also known as Antúnez [left]— called the vision of promoting change through engagement “a farce promoted by the Castro regime in order to perpetuate itself in power.” The political activist Antonio Rodiles has argued that American sanctions failed because they were “anemically imposed.”

But the dissident community is not monolithic. Miriam Leiva, one of the founders of Ladies in White, a group of women related to jailed dissidents, applauded Mr. Obama’s policy as “a unique opportunity to assist the Cuban people.” Elizardo Sánchez, who founded the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation and reports monthly about political arrests, also endorsed engagement, saying, “It’s better to resolve differences in this way, not to make war, either cold or hot.”

President Obama “is playing a long game, knowing that his strategy of engagement and persistent persuasion will not produce dramatic change overnight,” LeoGrande adds. “Still, the president is gambling that his formula will create the conditions that draw Cuba inexorably toward a more open body politic and economy.”

The Cuban Democratic Directorate did not support Obama’s visit, said Orlando Gutiérrez, the group’s president.

“The Castro regime has not changed, violations of human rights continue to rise, every day violence increases against the people and the Cuban opposition,” he said. “Political prisoners are not released, nor is there any real democratic change in the country.”

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