In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: What the dissidents told the president

Cuban dissident Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas donned a crisp suit and tie to meet the president of the United States in Miami, but it was his battle wounds that spoke volumes.

The former psychologist and veteran Cuban soldier of the Angolan war — a humble man from central Santa Clara who has become an internationally recognized human rights activist after staging some two dozen hunger strikes to protest government abuses — was sporting bruises and cuts from the latest beating by pro-government mobs and police.

When Fariñas told President Barack Obama, leader of the free world, that repression in Cuba is increasing despite what appears to be positive economic-driven changes, he wasn’t citing a report but speaking from personal experience. So was Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, who also met the president at the Friday night Democratic Party fund-raising event. It was a momentous gathering because of the presence of these two brave Cubans — black dissidents who have severed the racial divide the Castro regime has tried to create between Cubans on the island and in exile.

And here they were, meeting with not just any American president, but with a black man who made history breaking through this nation’s own racial divide in a historic election.

Yet this is a president who, until this moment, had been publicly absent from the topic of Cuba, even as beatings and detentions of activists like Fariñas and Soler have become commonplace.

It was a welcome and symbolic meeting, one that many people hope translates into greater international protection for all of Cuba’s dissidents, and particularly for these two brave leaders taking the physical blows at ground zero.

Surprisingly, the meeting has generated little commentary. I’d venture to say perhaps because the event at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, was closed to the media. Or perhaps the lack of enthusiasm shows we’ve become a people weary of presidential gestures high on rhetoric but short on results. It’s been five decades of “ Cuba sí, Castro no” chants, and policies, isolationist and otherwise, that continued to expand exile and didn’t yield democratic changes.

Not that Obama broke any ground beyond the symbolism.

His speech touched on some of the predictable talking points of his administration — business creation, the nature of Washington politics, and energy policy — but gave few specifics about Cuba beyond the mention of his administration’s increased “people-to-people” travel and family remittances.

His policy of supporting and engaging civil society, the president said, is beginning to show results.

“We’ve started to see changes on the island,” Obama said. “Now, I think we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.

“And I think that partly because we’re of the same generation, we recognize that the aims are always going to be the same. And what we have to do is to continually find new mechanisms and new tools to speak out on behalf of the issues that we care so deeply about.”

But perhaps what is equally, if not more important, than what Obama said was what Fariñas and Soler told the president.

They counseled him to listen to dissidents who live on the island: Repression in Cuba has increased, not decreased. They advocated keeping “tough sanctions” until the government goes beyond “cosmetic changes” and moves toward real democracy.

And they told Obama that any negotiations on the future of Cuba must include dissidents in the island as well as Cuban exiles.

It takes guts to publicly disclose those elements of a conversation with the president — then return to Cuba.

Maybe therein lies hope.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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