It is unfortunate that the discussion about U.S.-Cuba relations remains so focused on the embargo. It obscures developments within Cuba and excludes considerations on what should be done to free Cubans to choose their own destiny.
Cubans aspire to live in a democracy and with a free-enterprise economy that allows them to improve their lives. So far, the beneficiaries of economic reforms beyond filling cigarette lighters, making paper flowers or working as a barber and such, have been the military and their relatives.
President Obama announced on Dec. 17 that his administration had carried out 18 months of secret negotiations to normalize relations with Havana. Cuban President Raúl Castro released an American hostage he had held for five years — a development-aid worker sentenced by a kangaroo court for giving and setting up a laptop computer and satellite telephone to a small Cuban Jewish group wanting to connect to the Internet. President Obama freed three Cuban spies, one of them serving a life sentence for his participation in the murder of four men in two civilian planes shot down in international airspace by Cuban MIGs. The president also said Cuba would release 53 of its political prisoners.
Some of them have been re-incarcerated, and in early January Amnesty International reported receiving reports about a “worrying rise in harassment and short-term detentions of dissidents” throughout 2014. It also warned that Cuba’s prison releases “will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinion and freedoms in Cuba.”
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That smoke screen is now thick. In the first four months of 2015, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports from Havana that 1,618 Cuban dissidents were arrested.
This increased repression occurs while talks between Washington and Havana are taking place. Amnesty reported that during 2013 there were 6,424 documented short-term political detentions and in 2014 there were 8,899.
So, how can anyone conclude that a regime that is increasing repression and abuse during negotiations will become more tolerant and respectful of human rights once its military and security forces are strengthened by an inflow of hundreds of millions of dollars stemming from new American policies?
Recent media reports indicate Cuban and American diplomats hold “highly productive” meetings, but after almost two years of negotiations with Raúl Castro’s government, political repression and denial of the most fundamental human rights continues. This February, The Guardian reported that a group of international artists had condemned the arrest of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the confiscation of her passport for attempting “to stage a performance about free speech in Havana.” Other artists are also in prison because of their political views.
On May 25, more than 200 Cuban dissidents were arrested, including members of The Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives and daughters of political prisoners who parade after attending Sunday mass. That day, internationally recognized Cuban blogger, Yoani Sánchez tweeted: “Sundays are not anymore family peaceful days...but journeys of beatings, menacing and dungeons.”
Cuban philosopher Alexis Jardines, currently teaching at Florida International University, believes “President Obama is clinging to the illusion that economic changes brought about by normalizing relations will work in favor of political changes.” The president “does not ask about the nature of those changes. And that’s why he committed the elemental mistake of negotiating without conditions.”
In the new “normalizing environment,” Jardines says, “people define themselves as either supporters of unconditional negotiating with the Cuban regime or of normalizing relations focused on the interests of the Cuban people, not on satisfying the whims of the one-party dictatorship. That is to say, a negotiation with conditions, as common sense requires.”
Talks have gone on long enough to suggest the United States shift its focus from bilateral relations to urging Gen. Raúl Castro to talk to his own people, to listen to them and to allow them a voice in their government. U.S. concerns about human rights in Cuba must be paramount in our approach.
Unfortunately, some Americans seem more interested in what rights they’ll gain to do things in Cuba. The business they’ll do in Cuba is not likely to benefit the average Cuban or help Cubans improve their lives.
Regardless of whether Raúl Castro’s government is fully accepted by the United States, Cubans will recover their freedom and will rebuild their nation. When they do, let’s hope that Cubans will forget the current misguided chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations and remember that the people of America were on their side and not on the side of Castro’s repressive dictatorship.
It would help, and it might not be too late, if President Obama made it clear that the future for Cuba is democracy.
Ambassador James C. Cason served 38 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for three years. He currently is mayor of Coral Gables.