When did ‘freedom’ become a dirty word?

Pope Francis, with Raúl Castro, at an arrival ceremony in Cuba for the pontiff.
Pope Francis, with Raúl Castro, at an arrival ceremony in Cuba for the pontiff. AP

When discussing Cuba or U.S-Cuba policy, the word “freedom” has become politically incorrect in official circles. In his 1998 homily in Havana, Pope John Paul II mentioned freedom 17 times.

But Pope Francis did not use the word once during his recent visit to Cuba.

In 2007, President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly noting that: “The Cuban people are ready for their freedom. And … the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly and, ultimately, free and competitive elections.”

President Obama, in his recent U.N. comments regarding Cuba, did not use the word freedom: and unassertively stated the obvious: “We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights. But we address these issues through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties.”

This statement unambiguously acknowledges that the struggle for freedom for the Cuban people has now been relegated to a subordinate position. Increased commerce is the new guiding light.

Yet freedom has not advanced in Cuba. The recently published Human Freedom Index, the joint project of various respected organizations, is perhaps the most studious and comprehensive global measurement of personal, civil and economic freedom ever put together covering 152 countries.

For context, the United States rates No. 20 in the aggregate freedom index, China is No. 132 and Iran closes the rankings at No. 152.

And Cuba? Well, Cuba, one of the least free countries in the world, cannot even be included in the index given its total lack of transparency and the unreliability of its data.

Vanishing the term freedom from policy discussions suggests we have abandoned the core American principle of being the voice of liberty for oppressed people.

Even worse, the new U.S.-Cuba policy appears to be based on some “moral hazard” calculation.

In the vocabulary of finance and economics, moral hazard describes a condition in which we do not have to suffer the consequences of our decisions. In other words, moral hazard occurs when one person makes a decision, while someone else bears the costs if things go badly.

When people are isolated from the risks associated with their actions, they may behave differently from how they would act if they were fully exposed to the risks.

Consider how careful politicians are when spending your money. Or how much risk we may choose to take to protect our car from theft when we know it is fully insured against theft.

The new approach to U.S.-Cuba relations makes it clear to all that liberty for the Cuban people is no longer the primary objective or moral compass of the administration. The natural consequence is the legitimization and, perhaps, perpetuation, of the Cuban tyranny.

This consequence will not be endured by the policymakers, but by the Cuban people. From the perspective of moral hazard, it is fair to ask: Would policymakers be as callous or careless if their own aspirations for liberty were at play?

It is not objectionable to argue for a new approach, or for reconciliation, as President Obama, Pope Francis and their supporters seek.

However, it is objectionable and deeply offensive to our values that the new approach deliberately excludes the concept of freedom for the Cuban people from all communications.

Implied is a call for Cubans to resign themselves indefinitely to freedomless lives. Sadly, this is a call made by those enjoying the blessings of liberty, therefore, moral hazard.

Supporters argue that the new policy seeks to improve Cubans’ well-being. But well-being and freedom are not mutually exclusive conditions. Advocating for one does not require us to give up advocating for the other.

What message is the United States sending to Cubans by refraining from calling for their freedom? Why is it deemed necessary? What is the international community to make of this self-censorship?

If we believe in the promise of freedom, then the explanation has to be that the administration does not want to upset the Cuban government, which rejects the concept of liberty.

How is that timidity a projection of American values, of “the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, and the author of the book “Mañana in Cuba.”