Reality of Cuba Exposed Abroad

Monday, March 4, 2013
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

How Cubans' Travel Rattles the Regime

To persuade the world it is reforming, the regime lets more people travel. What they say isn't reassuring.

Cubans have been prohibited from traveling abroad legally for more than five decades. Recently, the Castro regime decided to issue travel permits as part of an effort to convince the world that the country's promised reform agenda is real. That decision is now seriously complicating Cuba's attempt at an image makeover.

The trouble is that the more Cubans travel, the clearer it becomes to the wider world that life on the island is primitive and degrading and changing hardly at all.

A direct hit comes from Rosa María Payá, the 24-year-old daughter of the late dissident Oswaldo Payá. Armed with an exit visa, she went to Madrid to interview Spanish national Ángel Carromero, the driver of the car that her father was riding in on July 22, 2012, just before it crashed and Payá died.

The Cuban regime blamed Mr. Carromero for Payá's death and the death of another passenger, dissident Harold Cepero. He was imprisoned on a manslaughter conviction and not permitted to speak to the Payá family. But in December he was paroled and allowed to return home. In a written text delivered for a press conference held on Thursday in Madrid, Ms. Payá said that her own investigation—including a review of text messages sent from the phone of one of the other passengers—concluded that what happened to her father was "no accident." The car "was intentionally rammed from behind by another car but the ramming did not cause the death of any of the passengers."

Ms. Payá said in the prepared text that "neither survivor recalls any spin out or crash against a tree." What is more, according to the text, "the two foreigners [Mr. Carromero and a Swedish human-rights activist] were immediately taken from the scene by the men in the other car" but that "we don't know what happened with my father and his friend," Mr. Cepero. Ms. Payá noted that there had been previous attempts on her father's life and she calls his death "a probable murder."

This is a major embarrassment to the regime and illustrates the problem that Havana faces in trying to maintain a totalitarian state while allowing international travel. To be convincing when it claims that the country is opening up, Havana has to grant permission to more than just the Cubans who want to go to Miami and buy things that they can't get in the revolutionary paradise, like toilet paper and soap.

The government has already turned down a number of important dissidents but it obviously felt compelled to let others go. Among the highest-profile ones is blogging sensation Yoani Sánchez, who is now on a world tour. Her first stop was Brazil, where local supporters of Cuba's military dictatorship turned out to jeer her. This was supposed to prove the enduring popularity in Brazil of Cuban oppression. But two things went horribly wrong.

First, the Brazilian magazine Veja reported that the protests were anything but spontaneous. According to the magazine, a consultant to the office of President Dilma Rousseff, members of her Workers Party, and the Cuban ambassador in Brazil had conspired to discredit Ms. Sánchez in the eyes of Brazilians and disrupt her public appearances. If the Veja account is true, and it sounds plausible since Brazil admitted that Cuba gave it a "dossier" on Ms. Sánchez, the "reforming" Cuba remains a sneaky practitioner of spying, propagandizing and agitprop. Rehab for the dictatorship doesn't seem to be going well.

Ms. Sánchez reacted to the protesters' taunts by saying how much she respects and admires a country that defends the right of free speech. Her Brazilian critics were left looking small and intolerant.

Ms. Payá's European sojourn also included a stop in Switzerland, where she delivered a powerful speech in English to the 5th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. Stressing her commitment to a peaceful transition in her country, she described Cuba's "reforms" as "fraudulent change" that is "designed to preserve [the regime's] power and authority."

As an example, Ms. Payá noted that while the need for an "exit permit" had been eliminated, there is now a new "list of requirements" to get a passport. "The government continues deciding who may enter or leave the island," she said. "This time, I could get out, but other Cubans couldn't and still can't."

Whether the articulate and passionate Ms. Payá and others like her will be allowed to come and go from Cuba or whether the regime will keep them on a tight leash will be telling. Simply painting advocates of liberty as stooges for the U.S. won't be effective if the regime's ability to isolate the Cuban people comes to an end.

"We don't want, and we don't need, to depend on anybody," Ms. Payá said in Geneva. "Not on Venezuela, not on the United States. What we need is to be free."