People will assess the impact of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba for years to come, but a long conversation with Cuba’s oldest and best-known human-rights leader shortly before the U.S. president’s visit left me skeptical that there will be significant changes on the island anytime soon.
I talked with Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, 72, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, hours before he returned to Cuba after a family visit to Miami last week. He was detained for 3 1/2 hours on his arrival in Havana Saturday, and is scheduled to attend a private meeting between Obama and a small group of Cuban dissidents in Havana on Tuesday.
Sánchez is one of the founders of Cuba’s human-rights movement and an interesting political figure. After breaking with the Castro dictatorship in the 1960s, he founded the commission to keep track of the regime’s human-rights abuses and became one of the government’s most vocal critics. But at the same time, he has always opposed the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and has supported the re-establishment of diplomatic ties.
Still, Sánchez has no illusions that Obama’s trip will bring about any important changes on the island. In fact, there has been “a big increase” in repression of peaceful oppositionists since Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014, opening to Cuba, he told me. There were more than 2,500 short-term detentions for political reasons in the first two months of this year.
What do you think about Obama’s assertion that new U.S. trade ties with Cuba will bring about incremental economic changes, which in time may result in greater political freedoms? I asked him.
“I only know four or five words in English, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s what you call ‘wishful thinking,’ ” Sánchez said. “There have been no real reforms in Cuba, but only small administrative changes, which are not laws and can be reversed anytime.”
Why are you afraid that these small “administrative changes,” such as greater freedom to travel abroad for Cubans, will be reversed? I asked.
Because it has happened many times before, Sánchez responded. “The Castro brothers need to keep alive the image of a foreign enemy. The image of a foreign enemy is indispensable for any dictatorship. And when there isn’t a foreign enemy, they create it, as Jimmy Carter learned the hard way,” Sánchez said.
Carter, much like Obama today, opened up a U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana — known as a U.S. interests section — in 1977, and wanted to continue improving ties with the Cuban regime, Sánchez explained. But Fidel Castro sabotaged these efforts by unleashing the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which badly hurt the Carter presidency.
“Carter extended his hand, and Castro bit it,” Sánchez said, adding that Obama should keep this in mind. Castro ordered the Mariel boatlift in order to create a conflict with the United States and keep alive the Cuban regime’s excuse for repression at home, he added.
Won’t things change now that Raúl Castro vows to retire in 2018 and Fidel Castro is about to turn 90? I asked. Sánchez bit his lips, in a signal of skepticism.
“I imagine the Castro family will stay in power under a [rotating] formula such as that of Russian President [Vladimir] Putin and [Dmitry] Medvedev. Real power will continue in the Castro family’s hands,” he said.
Sánchez said he supports Obama’s trip because it helps undermine the Cuban dictatorship’s excuse that it can’t allow fundamental freedoms because of an alleged U.S. aggression, although he is under no illusion that Obama’s public speech in Havana — even if it’s allowed to be broadcast on the island — will have a huge impact.
Castro may allow Obama to say what he wants “because later, with his huge domestic and foreign propaganda machine, and with police intimidation, Castro can erase his message from people’s memory,” he said.
My opinion: I agree. Even if Obama makes a strong speech in Havana, Cuba’s dictatorship will soon “erase” that message from people’s memories with an avalanche of political propaganda.
Only a major international diplomatic offensive to help restore fundamental rights in Cuba, now that the Cuban regime’s claim of a continued U.S. threat sounds increasingly ridiculous, can start to bring about a political opening on the island. Without that offensive, the impact of Obama’s trip will be minimal and short-lived.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español