Earlier this month, more than 300 Cuban dissidents, many affiliated with the Patriotic Union for Cuba (UNPACU), were detained by the Cuban government while marching for the release of political prisoners on the island. The crackdown came on the heels of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation’s report of 882 political detentions carried out on the island in September, the highest level of any month this year.
This rise in oppressive behavior in Cuba should be recognized for what it is: fear that normalization with the United States will lead to an irreversible loss of authority for government hardliners. As UNPACU’s José Daniel Ferrer told the New York Times, “Repression has increased, but not because the new policy is weak and paves the way for that, no … repression has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage, and the regime fears it will lose control.”
With the United States taking steps to make trade and travel to Cuba more accessible, the Cuban people have heightened expectations about their quality of life in a post-normalization world. One only has to see the high demand for more wi-fi or the resurgence of the American flag as a fashion statement to see why the old guard is nervous. Even renewed interest from foreign investors —which Cuba doggedly pursued in recent years — has brought greater scrutiny to the state’s reluctance to create an environment conducive to private enterprise.
To further slow the momentum, the Cuban government is enacting change as slowly as possible — and ramping up repression. After five and a half decades, we know this tactic is aimed at more than suppressing dissent on the island. Those who seek to stymie change know that an increase in oppressive behavior encourages many here in the United States to call for a halt to engagement. That was, after all, our previous policy in a nutshell: The United States would turn its back on Cuba until it reformed.
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That approach only breathed life into those on the island who thrived under our policy of isolation. It also managed to rally the world behind a communist dictatorship in its struggle against the world's preeminent democracy. While the United States’ going it alone has given it plenty of political rhetoric about being the only country willing to stand up to the Castros, the truth is far more tragic: Without the embargo, it’s unlikely the Cuban government would have been able to conduct itself as it has for so long.
It’s critical to avoid once again falling into the trap of giving hardliners the isolation they’ve thrived on for years. Opening up trade and travel has taken control over U.S. policy out of the hands of the Cuban government for the first time in decades. It has boosted Cuba’s entrepreneurial sector, improved relations in the region and reconnected the Cuban-American exile community with a home many people hadn’t seen since they left so many years ago. Most important, it has undercut the government’s pretext for depriving the Cuban people of some of their most basic rights.
The arrests and beatings of Cubans protesting for their rights are a predictable and reprehensible reaction by the Cuban government seeking to temper expectations for greater change. For decades, Cuban officials have justified these acts as necessary to protect their sovereignty from U.S. aggression. But in the wake of rapprochement, these acts are quickly becoming more difficult to rationalize not just to Cubans, but also to the rest of the world. Those responsible want us to react by again shutting the door. We shouldn’t take the bait.
David Gomez is the Political Director for #CubaNow.