A Sad Day for Democracy in Latin America

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
By Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

Latin leaders to applaud Cuba’s dictatorship

What’s most shameful about Latin American presidents’ scheduled visit to Cuba for a regional summit Tuesday is not that they will visit one of the world’s last family dictatorships, but that they most likely won’t even set foot at a parallel summit that the island’s peaceful opposition plans to hold at the same time.

Barring last-minute surprises, the 32 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state and government representatives scheduled to attend the Tuesday-Thursday summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Havana will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba.

So far, not even Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who wants to be seen as part of a new generation of leaders of his once-authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has plans to meet with any member of the peaceful opposition while in Cuba.

By comparison, former President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, met with peaceful opposition leaders during a visit to Cuba in 2002, and former Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green met with Cuban dissidents during a summit in Havana in 1999. And the Castro brothers meet with leftist opposition leaders whenever they go to summits in countries that are not ruled by sympathetic leaders.

In a Jan. 18 interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade said that “we want to develop a very close relationship with Cuba, of full support to its economic updating strategy.”

Asked whether Peña Nieto will meet with Cuban dissidents during his visit, Meade said, “President Peña Nieto will participate in Cuba in an agenda related to the CELAC summit. He has accepted an official visit, and that’s the framework in which it will develop.” Translation: He won’t.

Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who is also scheduled to attend the summit as an observer, did not respond at the time of this writing to a call about whether he will meet with opposition leaders.

Guillermo Fariñas, one of the Cuban opposition leaders planning to attend the counter-summit in Havana, told me in a telephone interview from Cuba earlier this week that Cuba’s secret police has already paid a visit to several dissidents, including blogger Yoanni Sanchez, warning them not to hold the opposition summit.

“Whether or not Cuba’s repressive regime allows a parallel summit of the peaceful opposition, it will pay a political price for it,” Fariñas told me.

“If they allow it, the international media will hear from voices other than the official ones, and we will tell them that there’s no democracy in Cuba,” Fariñas said. “And if they don’t allow it, it will show that despite its propaganda efforts claiming that there are changes going on in Cuba, the reality is that there’s a wave of repression.”

The likelihood that the visiting leaders won’t meet with the opposition makes them “accomplices with the only dictatorship in Latin America,” Fariñas said. “History shows that when countries make goodwill gestures toward this kind of dictatorships, the latter use them to strengthen themselves diplomatically, politically, economically and militarily.”

“My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn’t make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship,” Fariñas concluded. “They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change.”

My opinion: I agree. It’s already a joke that Latin America’s democratically elected presidents have picked the region’s only military dictator — which is what Gen. Raúl Castro is, by any dictionary’s definition — as head of CELAC, even if the group that has among its top goals “promoting democracy’’ in the region.

But going to a CELAC summit in Cuba without meeting with any opposition representatives amounts to giving a propaganda boost to a totalitarian regime, while spurning the island’s peaceful opposition. Many of us who opposed Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s still remember how these international summits help legitimize totalitarian regimes.

Of course, some of the visiting presidents will claim that they can’t meet with dissidents on an official visit because they have to respect the “self-determination of the Cuban people.” That’s baloney! What “self-determination” are they talking about, when the Cuban people haven’t had a chance to vote freely to determine their own future in 55 years?

If visiting leaders don’t meet any members of the peaceful opposition while in Havana, it will be a sad day for the history of democracy in Latin America.