Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: U.S.-Cuba relations improve, but Castro keeps beating dissidents

Cuban opposition activist Antonio Rodiles on Sunday after he was beaten and underwent an operation for a nose fracture.
Cuban opposition activist Antonio Rodiles on Sunday after he was beaten and underwent an operation for a nose fracture.

A Cuban-American who visits family and friends on the island every year —and shares her experiences with me — told me shortly after the remarkable turnaround in U.S.-Cuba policy that what she appreciated about my columns was that they’re not “saccharine but reality-based.”

“I’m way out of sugar on the Cuban topic,” I found myself answering her.

Six months after the historic announcement, that feels all the more true. The fast pace of change calls for more facts, not emotions — and although the latter are plentiful on all sides of this new day in Cuba-U.S relations, people need less rhetoric and more real information about where all this is headed. The currency should be truth and not emotional manipulation.

That’s why I see the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington D.C. with pragmatism.

That’s why I continue to take note of the Cuban government’s human-rights abuses with horror but can continue to hope (note that the word is not “think”) that opening up — shining the light of democratic principles — is the way forward.

But it does take a strong stomach to digest the Cuba news feed.

One day, U.S. and Cuban diplomats exchange letters pledging to resume diplomatic relations and open embassies, and on his end, Cuban leader Raul Castro agrees to abide by the United Nations Charter and Vienna Convention, and I quote from his letter, “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedom for all.”

Three days later, his thugs beat up and arrest dissidents in Havana.

This is not an isolated incident under question, but an act of violence available to anyone who cares to see the photo and video of Antonio Rodiles widely circulating on the Internet, posted by activists from his civic project Estado de Sats.

Under the noses of ordinary American visitors enjoying their newly minted legal status in Havana, and in the light of a modern-connected world, Rodiles, one of Cuba’s peaceful dissident leaders — a man of intellectual eloquence on civil rights — was shackled and shoved into a state security car where he was punched, his nose broken, blood gushing all over his shirt.

He was one of almost 100 dissidents arrested and beaten by Cuban police in Havana for joining the Ladies in White on their weekly walk after church to ask for the release of Cubans jailed for exercising universal rights that the Cuban government denies them.

The abuse, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

On June 25, while engaged in historic negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, the State Department singled out Cuba as a serial human-rights abuser in its annual worldwide report.

“Engagement is not the same thing as endorsement,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of democracy, human rights and labor, explaining why the Obama administration could condemn and engage in the same breath. “Our opening to Cuba... was designed because we felt that the new policy is better suited to promoting human rights in Cuba than the old policy. We very firmly believe that in the long run... this is going to put us in a much stronger position to promote human rights and to stand by civil society on the island.”

Was the report, which also called out Iran, blasted all over social media by the warring factions on U.S.-Cuba policy?

Not at all. It didn’t fit anyone’s agenda in a world seemingly more transparent than ever, but missing nuance, reality checks and facts.

In the cacophony of ready-made, knee-jerk opinions delivered with a clever conceptual hashtag, Castro can get away with an empty pledge on paper and blunt oppression.

All a State Department spokesman would say Tuesday is that the administration is “concerned” and would remain “vocal and very candid” about rights abuses, but would not delay the process of normalizing relations.

Operating under the veil of diplomacy has been the hallmark of this process.

The State Department is willing to discuss timelines and procedural details with the diplomatic press corps, but no significant information about all that has been negotiated with the Cuban government has been revealed. The information is not even available to journalists covering the story — and that’s part of the problem. Information is lacking, but everyone’s opining.

Hard not to, when, if we were to measure the U.S. perks delivered to the Cuban government against the freedoms gained by the Cuban people, Castro appears to be on the winning end of the strategy.

How else could beatings and arrests be followed by news that the largest cruise ship company in the world —– South Florida-based Carnival — has been licensed by the U.S. government to ferry hordes of tourists to Cuba by 2016?

No matter how one dresses it up, cruising is the most frivolous way to travel — and the small print in this deal is filled with restrictions for tourists that can only benefit the Cuban government.

But no, I don’t feel betrayed by President Obama. No, I don’t feel jubilant about the new state of relations either. There’s not enough information to approve or condemn, and, as in the days of detente, no crystal ball.

All I know is that I’m all out of sugar.

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