Talk to Cuba’s democracy advocates

DEMOCRACY ADVOCATES: Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White participate in a demonstration in Havana last month.
DEMOCRACY ADVOCATES: Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White participate in a demonstration in Havana last month. AP

This week, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to continue negotiations with the Cuban authorities.

We wish her Godspeed, and hope that besides talking with her Cuban counterparts, Ms. Jacobson will meet with Cubans whom President Obama wants to empower — human-rights activists, pro-democracy leaders — to help them build Cuba’s civil society grounded on human rights and the rule of law.

The beginning of Obama’s new Cuba policy has not been promising: It took Raúl Castro more than two weeks after the Cuban spies were home and development aid worker Alan Gross had arrived in America, and considerable attention by media and Capitol Hill, for the promised release of political prisoners to take place.

That was not all.

Of the 53 on the State Department’s list, several were close to completing their sentences, others had been released months ago and some of the original 53 were rearrested. A group of Cubans who wanted to meet peacefully at Havana’s Revolutionary Square were harassed, mistreated and detained.

Perhaps more important for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations is how Cubans perceive the new agreement.

To this day, they remember how ordinary Cubans were kept out of the negotiations between the United States and Spain at the end of Cuba’s War of Independence. The negotiations were held in secret, and the Cubans who fought colonial rule for more than 30 years were not at the negotiating table.

More than a century later, an American administration negotiates another secret agreement affecting the lives of millions of Cubans without informing them or obtaining their consent. This time with a Cuban dictator.

Imagine the president of the United States holding secret discussions with another government on matters of great importance to the American people without telling Congress, and you will understand the sense of betrayal and despair that the Obama-Castro negotiations have generated. Now with the negotiations resuming between Washington and Havana, perhaps it is not too late for Jacobson to attempt to remedy the situation, to meet with leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Havana.

Other important issues that have an impact on U.S. national security interests should be part of the agenda:

▪ The presence in Venezuela of thousands of Cuban security officers who repress Venezuelan demonstrators and train Venezuela’s secret police.

▪ Cuba’s close alliance with North Korea. Havana attempted to smuggle two warplanes and missiles under tons of sugar in a North Korean cargo ship caught at the Panama Canal two years ago. More recently, Havana led a coalition that attempted to block a U.N. resolution sending North Korea’s tyrant to the International Criminal Court.

▪ While the Obama-Castro negotiations took place, an American court sentenced a Cuban American who had committed Medicare fraud for $300 million that were deposited in Cuba’s National Bank. Has the administration asked Castro to return those funds?

▪ The president apparently wants to remove Cuba from the list of countries supporting international terrorism without giving due consideration to American fugitives enjoying Castro’s hospitality. According to the FBI, one of them escaped from a U.S. prison in 1979 after being sentenced for killing a New Jersey state trooper.

Amnesty International objected recently to the dangerousness “law” used by the Cuban government to send dissidents to prison if the government believes that, even without any evidence, the person could commit a crime in the future.

Amnesty said after the president’s statement that if there were no changes in Castro’s arbitrary decrees, the prisoners’ release would be little more than a smokescreen covering abuse and repression on the island.

Shouldn’t absurd laws like this also be on the U.S. agenda?

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.