WaPo Editorial Board: President Obama’s 'Betrayal' of Cuban Democrats

Friday, December 19, 2014
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

President Obama’s ‘betrayal’ of Cuban democrats

President Obama said he decided to normalize relations with Cuba because “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.” So it’s important to know the reaction of those Cubans who have put their lives on the line to fight for democracy and human rights. Many have supported engagement and opposed the U.S. embargo. But they are now pretty much unanimous in saying that the way Mr. Obama has gone about this is a mistake.

Actually, “mistake” is the polite word used by Berta Soler of the Ladies in White, an astonishingly courageous group of women who march each week in support of political prisoners. “Betrayal” was the term used by several others, who asked why Mr. Obama had chosen to lift economic restrictions and dispatch an ambassador without requiring the “significant steps toward democracy” he once said must precede liberalization.

Guillermo Fariñas, the general director of the dissidents’ United Anti-Totalitarian Front, told reporters in Havana that Mr. Obama had promised in a November 2013 meeting with himself and Ms. Soler that any U.S. action on Cuba “would be consulted with civil society and the nonviolent opposition. Obviously this didn’t happen . . . they didn’t take into account Cuban democrats.”

The negative response from the people whom Mr. Obama portrays as the beneficiaries of his initiative is one reason to question his contention that Cuba should be treated like China and Vietnam, two Communist nations with which the United States normalized diplomatic and economic relations decades ago. The United States was not able to join with opposition movements in those countries in demanding democratic reforms as part of a normalization process because, at the time, such movements barely existed in either place. In Cuba’s case, the opportunity was there.

Engagement with China and Vietnam also offered huge economic and geopolitical benefits that don’t exist in the case of Cuba, an impoverished island whose main interest to the United States is the freedom and prosperity of its 11 million people. In the past, the Castro regime has hosted Soviet nuclear missiles and sponsored terrorism elsewhere in the region, and it still harbors American criminals. But its worst behavior has been the repression of its own people, which has repeatedly driven waves of refugees to the Florida straits.

But even if the analogy were apt, we would argue that Mr. Obama should have learned and applied some of the hard lessons of normalization with China and Vietnam — most notably that engagement doesn’t automatically promote freedom. When the United States debated extending “most-favored-nation” trading status to China, we shared in what was then the conventional wisdom: Economic engagement would inevitably lead, over time, to political reform inside that Communist dictatorship. President Bill Clinton argued that no autocracy could control the relatively new tool of connection known as the Internet, certainly not while hoping to foster international trade and investment. Travel, openness, exposure to the American example — all this would, inexorably if gradually, push China to liberalize.

But the men who run China had other ideas. They were determined to reap the fruits of foreign investment and trade — for themselves and their families, first, but also for their country — without ceding power. So far, confounding expectations, they have succeeded. The Chinese standard of living has risen, and Chinese enjoy far more personal freedom than they did under Mao — to choose where to live, say, or whom to marry. But in the past decade, political freedom in China has declined — there is less freedom of speech, of the press, of cultural expression. More political prisoners have been locked up and tortured. Tens of thousands of censors keep tight control over the Internet.

The same is true in Vietnam: more foreign investment, less political and religious freedom, more bloggers in prison. And these are not anomalies: In the years that Mr. Obama has been in office, freedom has receded across the globe — without much protest or response from his administration.

What is the right reaction to this? Not to turn away from engagement, which would be impossible and also, in our view, wrong: It is unquestionably good that trade has helped lift many ordinary Chinese into relative prosperity. Rather, practice engagement intelligently; instead of simply assuming that it will help promote freedom, take steps to increase the likelihood that it will do so.

In Cuba’s case, that means listening to the brave freedom fighters Mr. Obama spurned. Mr. Obama’s prescription was not the only alternative to what he saw as the failed policy of the past half-century. Opposition leaders from throughout the island have agreed on four immediate demands to put before the government: the release of political prisoners; the end of repression against human rights and pro-democracy groups; the ratification of international covenants on human rights; and the recognition of Cuban civil society groups.

Rosa Maria Paya: Here’s What Cuba Really Needs, Mr. Obama

An Open Letter by Cuban democracy leader, Rosa María Payá, to President Obama in The Washington Post:

Sr. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America

I am writing to you because I assume that goodwill inspired your decision to change U.S. policy toward my country.

I appeal to this goodwill, notwithstanding your decision to review Cuba’s place on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism despite the Cuban government’s attempt, just a year ago, to smuggle tons of weapons in a North Korean ship through the Panama Canal. And despite Cuban state security provoking the 2012 car crash that took the life of my father, Oswaldo Payá, one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents who represented the alternative to the regime, and his young associate Harold Cepero. And even though the Cuban government refuses to allow an investigation and has not given even a copy of the autopsy report to my family.

The Cuban regime has decided it needs to change its image, so it will relax its grip in some areas while it remains in power. It has discovered that it can allow more Cubans to enter and leave the country and that some people can create a timbiriche (a very small business), but the Cuban government still decides who can travel and who can open a small business. Mr. President, your laws are not what is preventing the free market and access to information in Cuba; it is the Cuban government’s legislation and its constant censorship.

We agree, Mr. President, that you cannot “keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect different results.”

But there is nothing new in treating as “normal” the illegitimate government in Havana, which has never been elected by its citizens and has been practicing state murder with impunity. That strategy already has been done by all the other governments without positive consequences for democracy in my country.

What would be new would be a real commitment to the Cuban people, with concrete actions supporting citizens’ demands. We don’t need interventionist tactics but rather backing for solutions that we Cubans have created ourselves.

For 55 years, the only free, legal and popular demand from Cubans has been a call for a referendum on self-government, the Varela Project. We want changes in the law that will guarantee freedom of expression and association, the release of political prisoners, the right to own private enterprises, and free and plural elections.

You asked in your historic speech : How can we uphold that commitment, the commitment to freedom?

I take you at your word, Mr. President. The answer to you and to all the world’s democratic governments is: Support the implementation of a plebiscite for free and pluralistic elections in Cuba; and support citizen participation in the democratic process, the only thing that will guarantee the end of totalitarianism in Cuba.

My father used to say, “Dialogues between the elites are not the space of the people.” The totalitarianism of the 21st century — which interferes in the internal affairs of many countries in the region and promotes undemocratic practices in countries such as Venezuela — will sit at the table next to the hemisphere’s democracies. I hope censorship doesn’t come to that table as well and that we Cubans, whom you so far have excluded from this process, can have a place in future negotiations.

We expect your administration, the Vatican and Canada to support our demands with the same intensity and goodwill with which you supported this process of rapprochement with the Cuban government. Human rights are the foundation of democracy, and we expect you to support the right of Cubans to decide their future.

We ask you to support an independent investigation into the attack that caused the deaths of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero.

We do not want symbolic solidarity. We do not want to participate only in the parallel forum to the next Summit of the Americas. The chair that will be occupied by the Cuban government is not the chair of the people, because the Cuban government does not represent Cuba’s citizens . That’s why we need to be present at the main summit, so that the demands of Cuban citizens are heard and empowered by the regional democracies.

Mr. President, dare now, after quoting our José Martí, to put into practice the honesty that a free Cuba deserves, “with all and for the good of all.”

God bless our countries.

Merry Christmas to you and your family,

Rosa María Payá Acevedo

Cuban-American Members of Congress: United in Opposition to Obama's Deal

From The Wall Street Journal:

For Cuban-Americans in Congress, the Pain Doesn’t Go Away

Lawmakers in Senate and House React to Obama Plan in Personal Terms

Many politicians today see U.S.-Cuba relations as a niche issue, an obsolete preoccupation of the Cold War. But for a small and influential cadre of Cuban-American members of Congress, it is a personal, painful and urgent concern.

Seven members of Congress—three senators and four House members—have family roots in Cuba and ties to the movement that has fought the Castro regime for a half-century. The group has stepped out as a bipartisan phalanx of opposition to President Barack Obama ’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, putting them at odds with a majority of Americans who, polls say, support the move.

“Cuba is close to home for me both because of my heritage and from the community I live in,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants who has led the opposition to the policy shift announced by Mr. Obama this week. “I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does.”

The group’s united opposition to Mr. Obama is noteworthy because polls show that Cuban-Americans outside Congress are split over the issue, mostly along generational lines. But anti-Castro sentiment is strong and well-organized in the older, politically influential Cuban-American exile community in the crucial swing state of Florida.

There are now three Cuban-American senators, two Republicans and one Democrat—Mr. Rubio, Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.). The four Cuban-Americans in the House include two Republicans—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida—and two Democrats, Reps. Albio Sires of New Jersey and Joe Garcia of Florida. Mr. Garcia lost his re-election bid and will be succeeded by another Cuban-American, Republican Carlos Curbelo, in January. An eighth Cuban-American, Republican Alex Mooney, will also join the House from West Virginia.

They span in age from 34 to 63, but all are children of the Castro-era migration—an influx fueled more by political turmoil than many other waves of migration to the U.S., which were driven by economic aspirations. They have no formal caucus or meeting structure, but many of them are close. Three—Ms. Ros-Lehtinen and Messrs. Rubio and Diaz-Balart—joined together in a news conference in Florida on Thursday to continue their critique of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy.

For these politicians, like many Cuban Americans of that generation, exile was a searing experience for them or their families. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, daughter of an anti-Castro activist, was born in Havana and migrated to the U.S. when she was 8 years old. Mr. Diaz-Balart was born in Florida, but his father was majority leader of the Cuban legislature and a leading anti-Castro figure before migrating to the U.S.

Mr. Curbelo said in an interview that his grandfather was a political prisoner and his great uncle was executed. But those are parts of his biography he doesn’t like to publicize, he said, for fear people will see his support for Cuba sanctions as emotionally driven.

Mr. Rubio is the son of Cubans who migrated to the U.S. in 1956, before Fidel Castro took power. He previously suggested that his parents had fled after Mr. Castro rose to power, but later revised his account amid questions about its accuracy.

Cuban Americans make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, but they are overrepresented in Congress: In the Senate, they make up 3% of the membership and include two potential presidential candidates (Messrs. Cruz and Rubio) and one committee chairman (Mr. Menendez, the current chairman and soon-to-be ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee).

They also run the ideological gamut. Mr. Menendez is a liberal Democrat while Mr. Cruz is a conservative Republican, but they speak almost as one on Cuba policy. Messrs. Menendez and Sires were as forceful in response to Mr. Obama’s policy shift as Mr. Cruz. Only Mr. Garcia refrained from criticism or praise of the policy, saying little more than welcoming the release of American Alan Gross from Cuban prison.

Mr. Diaz-Balart said that the agreement reflects the bond of a group for whom the behavior of a foreign government isn’t an abstract matter of policy, but a reality for family, friends and constituents.

“For us, this is not a hypothetical issue,” said Mr. Diaz-Balart, who disputes polls that suggest Cuban-Americans concern about the regime is waning. “We are in constant communication with people on the island.”

Mr. Rubio, even as he gears up for a possible presidential bid, says he doesn’t worry about political risks of supporting a policy that polls show is a minority view. “I don’t care,” Mr. Rubio said, “if 99% of people in polls disagree with my position. This is my position and I feel passionately about it.”

Ros-Lehtinen Op-Ed in Washington Times: Courting Dictators Won’t Lead to Democracy

By U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in The Washington Times:

Obama’s futile overtures to Cuba

President Obama’s argument for unilaterally reversing U.S.-Cuba policy rests on the false premise that engagement with dictators and terrorists will somehow get them to change their ways.

This irresponsible deal does not hold the Castro regime accountable as they have made no commitments to expand democratic principles on the island. In fact, the opposite is true: Raul Castro can continue his dictatorial ways without giving in an inch while the White House gave Mr. Castro all the concessions he wanted. Typical of the administration, the desire for a deal — any deal — was stronger than the interest in its contents.

Although it is welcome news that Alan Gross is back with his family in the United States, it is worth noting that he should have never been in jail in the first place. It was clear in the days following Mr. Gross’ arrest that the Castro brothers wanted to trade Mr. Gross for the Cuban Five. The administration’s false equivalency in this swap failed to acknowledge that Mr. Gross was, in essence, a hostage while the Cuban Five spies, who endangered American national security, received full due process including trial by jury.

Time and again, the Obama administration stated they would not swap Mr. Gross for the Cuban Five spies. Unsurprisingly, the administration reneged on its word and commuted the sentences of three convicted spies in exchange for Mr. Gross. The president not only snatched justice away from the families of the slain Brothers to the Rescue heroes, who consisted of three American citizens and one U.S. resident, but he is continuing down the dangerous avenue he began with the Bergdahl exchange to signal to our adversaries the value of holding American citizens as tools for obtaining concessions from the United States.

One critical component missing from this misguided deal with a communist regime is a voice for the freedom-loving people of Cuba. Ever since the deal was announced, leaders of the pro-democracy efforts in Cuba have denounced this one-sided deal. One leader of the largest resistance coalition in Cuba, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez “Antunez,” stated: “This is a betrayal that leaves the democratic opposition defenseless. Obama has allied himself with the oppressors and murderers of our people.” The administration’s actions are a slap in the face for the millions of Cubans on the island and also those in the Cuban-American community who have worked for generations to restore freedom on the island.

In 2009, the president first opened the door to more tourism travel to the island, but the opening for democracy that the president aimed for never came. There have been more than 8,400 political arrests in Cuba at the hands of Mr. Castro’s security forces in 2014, and the administration’s has even issued a travel advisory for Cuba that states: “U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba should be aware that the Cuban government may detain anyone at any time for any purpose, and should not expect that Cuba’s state security or judicial systems will carry out their responsibilities according to international norms.”

The increased travel promoted by the administration will only serve as a propaganda coup for the Castro regime. At a time when the Castro regime is suffering due to spiraling economies in Venezuela and Russia, they have turned to Mr. Obama for help through increased travel as an economic lifeline. Even with almost all the countries in the world trading with Cuba, the economic situation on the island continues to deteriorate, not because of the U.S. embargo but because of the disastrous economic policies of Raul Castro.

The administration continues to highlight the fact that the Cuban regime has decided to engage with the International Committee of the Red Cross, but this is another ruse by the president. In reality, we know that the Red Cross will not have access to Mr. Castro’s gulags and will not be able to monitor prison conditions. The administration calls a success the fact that 53 political prisoners will be released but does not articulate what will happen when the Castro regime puts more people back in jail, evidenced by the recent crackdown of more than 200 arrests on the island on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

The fundamental recurring theme is that the Castro regime will not change their oppressive tactics and will not loosen their grip on the island. Mr. Obama’s recent announcement of plans to ease restrictions is kowtowing to the Castro brothers and gives them all the concessions on the regime’s wish list. It is our role as the world’s lone superpower to uphold democratic values and be the guardian of freedom everywhere, not only where it is convenient for the president’s legacy. Mr. Obama’s policy of dictator engagement has undermined the national security of the United States that sets a dangerous precedent that emboldens other desperate, sanctioned regimes. It is now the role of the legislative branch to oppose this overreach of executive action and reaffirm the need to continue defending freedom and democracy everywhere in the world.

Cuban Dissident Leaders React to Obama's Announcement

Cuban dissident leaders react to President Obama's announcement to normalize relations with Castro's dictatorship:

"Sadly, President Obama made the wrong decision. The freedom and democracy of the Cuban people will not be achieved through these benefits that he's giving -- not to the Cuban people -- but to the Cuban government. The Cuban government will only take advantage to strengthen its repressive machinery, to repress civil society, its people and remain in power."

-- Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White.

"[Alan Gross] was not arrested for what he did, but for what could be gained from his arrest. He was simply bait and they were aware of it from the beginning... Castroism has won, though the positive result is that Alan Gross has left alive the prison that threatened to become his tomb."

-- Yoani Sanchez, Cuban blogger and independent journalist, 14ymedio.

"The Cuban people are being ignored in this secret conversation, in this secret agreement that we learned today. The reality of my country is there is just one party with all the control and with the state security controlling the whole society. If this doesn’t change, there’s no real change in Cuba. Not even with access to Internet. Not even when Cuban people can travel more than two years ago. Not even that is a sign of the end of the totalitarianism in my country."

--Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of murdered Christian Liberation Movement leader, Oswaldo Paya.

"[Obama's announcement] is horrible and disregarding the opinion of [Cuban] civil society sends a bad message. The acceptance of neo-Castroism in Cuba will mean greater support for authoritarianism in the region and, as a consequence, human rights will be relegated to a secondary role."

-- Antonio Rodiles, head of Estado de Sats.

"Alan Gross was used as a tool by the Castro regime to coerce the United States. Obama was not considerate of Cuban citizens and of the civil society that is facing this tyrannical regime. In Miami, Obama promised that he would consult Cuba measures with civil society and the non-violent opposition. Obviously, this didn't happen. That is a fact, a reality. He didn't consider Cuba's democrats. The betrayal of Cuba's democrats has been consummated."

-- Guillermo Fariñas, former Sakharov Prize recipient.

"The Obama Administration has ceded before Castro's dictatorship. Nothing has changed. The jails remain filled, the government represents only one family, repression continues, civil society is not recognized and we have no right to assemble or protest... The measures that the government of the United States has implemented today, to ease the embargo and establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, will in no way benefit the Cuban people. The steps taken will strengthen the Castro regime's repression against human rights activists and increase its resources, so the security forces can keep harassing and repressing civil society."

--Angel Moya, former political prisoner of the Black Spring (2003).

"We are in total disagreement with what has transpired today. It's a betrayal of those who within Cuba have opposed the regime in order to achieve definitive change for the good of all Cubans."

-- Felix Navarro, former political prisoner and co-head of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU).

"It's discomforting that the accounts of the Castro regime can grow, as the first step will be more effective repression and a rise in the level of corruption."

-- Jose Daniel Ferrer, former political prisoner and co-head of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU)

"This is a betrayal that leaves the democratic opposition defenseless. Obama has allied himself with the oppressors and murderers of our people."

-- Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez," former political prisoner and head of the National Resistance Front.

"I feel as though I have been abandoned on the battlefield."

-- Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, former Cuban political prisoner and U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Note to White House: Castro's Victims Aren't Amused

On Wednesday, President Obama insisted that his policy concessions to the Castro dictatorship would not diminish the seriousness with which he would address human rights and democracy in Cuba.

That's pretty hard to believe.

Moreover, his White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, isn't helping him make the case.

When asked about the hypothetical of a visit to Cuba by President Obama, Earnest responded:

I certainly wouldn't rule out a presidential visit. Like many Americans, he has seen that Cuba is a place where they have a beautiful climate and a lot of fun things to do. (Laughter.) So, if there's an opportunity for the president to visit, I'm sure he wouldn't turn it down.”

Not very amusing to the victims of Castro's repression.

Families of Murdered Americans on Obama's Prisoner Exchange

From WSVN-TV:

Families of Brothers to the Rescue victims criticize US-Cuba accord

Amid the mixed emotions that welcomed the announcement of a restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba Wednesday, several families affected by the prisoner exchange that made the historic accord possible voiced their stern disapproval.

The families of four men killed during a mission for the Miami-based activist nonprofit organization Brothers to the Rescue in 1996 spoke with reporters at the Biltmore Hotel. They called President Barack Obama's decision to release three of the members of the "Cuban Five," five Cuban men convicted of spying on the U.S. government, in exchange for American government contract worker Alan Gross an insult to the U.S. justice system.

"First, I want to say that I'm so happy that Alan Gross will be able to spend Hanukkah with his two daughters, 'cause I'll never have that again with my father," said Marelene Alejandre Triana, who was only 18 when her father, Armando Alejandre Jr., one of the four men on board Cessna Skymasters that had taken off from Opa-locka Airport on Feb. 24, 1996, was shot down over international waters.

One of those spies released this week, Gerardo Hernandez, was serving a life sentence for murder conspiracy for his role in the killings of the Brothers to the Rescue victims. "The only person that we had responsible for what happened, to be let go, it's a slap in the face to my dad," said Alejandre Triana.

The two other Cuban Five prisoners had been released earlier.

The flights, which started after a need to help provide humanitarian aid for people fleeing Cuba on rafts, also claimed the lives of Mario De La Pena, Pablo Morales and Carlos Costa.

Relatives of the four victims were seen hugging U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was there in support of the families. Their biggest complaint: that they were not contacted by the Obama administration to prepare them for the news. "Everybody knows everyone's phone numbers here, and any way to call, e-mail, anything, and nothing was done," said Alejandre Triana.

"I'd like to say that, not only do I feel that I've been slapped in the face by a president. I feel that the justice system of the United States of America today has suffered a big blow," said Miriam De La Pena, the mother of Mario De La Pena, as she fought back tears.

Menendez Op-Ed in USA Today: One-Sided Deal Rewards Cuba Regime

Thursday, December 18, 2014
By Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), in USA Today:

One-sided deal rewards Cuba regime

Alan Gross is home now. His five-year imprisonment for providing Internet access to Cuba's small Jewish community was cruel, arbitrary and consistent with the behavior of the Cuban regime.

By releasing Mr. Gross in exchange for three convicted Cuban spies who conspired to commit espionage against our nation, this administration has wrongly rewarded a totalitarian regime and thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline.

Cuba is a repressive state, but it will now receive the support of the United States, the world's greatest democracy.

For compromising on bedrock U.S. values, we received zero commitments from the regime to change its ways, to hold free elections, permit dissent, halt censorship and free all political prisoners. We abandoned U.S. policy, while the Castro brothers' stranglehold on power just got tighter.

This swap sets an extremely dangerous precedent and invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.

Most concerning is that the decision to open relations with Cuba fails to understand the nature of the Castro regime that has exerted its authoritarian control over the Cuban people for 55 years.

There is no reason that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that, if he extends his hand in peace, the Castro brothers will suddenly unclench their fists.

The opposite is true.

The changes to U.S. policy are clearly intended to circumvent the intent and spirit of U.S. law and Congress. It presents a false narrative about Cuba, suggesting that the United States and not the regime is responsible for its failings.

Cuba's economic struggles are the result of 50 years of failed political and economic experiments. In Cuba, private business is controlled by the Cuban government, with the benefits flowing to the regime's political and military leadership.

Cuba should not be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism either. Cuba harbors American fugitive Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists for murdering New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. Cuba also colluded with North Korea to smuggle jets, missile batteries, and arms through the Panama Canal in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

These and other such actions are not the actions of a nation deserving of our engagement.

That is why the president's decision to attend the Summit of the Americas is extraordinarily disappointing. It violates our own principles, laid down in the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, that the summit would be a forum for the hemisphere's democratically elected leaders.

In Cuba today, an untold number of ordinary people yearning for democracy remain imprisoned by the exact same tormentors who punished Alan Gross. They, along with all Cubans, deserve a free and liberated homeland.

That vision is less of a reality today than it was yesterday.