Obama's Policy Change Worries Cuba's Democratic Opposition

Friday, December 26, 2014
Read this story in today's New York Times very carefully.

On the one hand, you have Cuba's courageous democrats urging the United States not to unconditionally normalize relations and lift sanctions towards the Castro regime.

On the other, you have the Brookings Institution's Richard Feinberg defending Obama's betrayal of Cuba's democrats in favor of "shift toward political freedom would come from within the ranks of the Communist Party, as it did in Russia."

The most successful democratic transitions in modern history have been those where the United States sided with the democratic opposition, i.e., Poland's Walesa, the Czech Republic's Havel, South Africa's Mandela, Estonia's Laar.

Yet instead, Feinberg wants the United States to side with Cuba's Putins -- and Obama seems all-too-happy to oblige.

Because that worked out so well.

Finally, this article gets a fundamental fact upside down:

It's not whether Cuba's democrats will sit at the table to negotiate with Castro -- for they've never been invited. It's whether Castro will allow them to legally function without beatings, harassment and imprisonment -- let alone give them a seat at the table.

From The New York Times:

Sudden U.S. Thaw Worries Cuban Dissidents

Sitting in her brother’s spare apartment, near a blinking plastic Christmas tree, Sonia Garro was relishing her newfound freedom, happily trading her prison garb for a purple dress and flip-flops with bright pink plastic bows over the toes.

Ms. Garro, a member of the Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in White, had just spent, by her count, two years, nine months and 20 days behind bars. Her surprise release, a senior American official said, came as part of the secret negotiations that led to the historic agreement restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

But while Ms. Garro flashed a toothpaste-ad smile, thrilled to be spending Christmas with her 18-year-old daughter and other relatives, she had serious reservations about the deal. Like many dissidents, she was uneasy with the sudden rapprochement between Washington and Havana, including the softening of the longstanding economic embargo against Cuba.

“A country that violates the human rights of its people shouldn’t have sanctions lifted,” Ms. Garro said. “Here there is no freedom of speech, there is no freedom of anything. This will give them more leeway to continue operating with the same impunity that they have always operated with.”

There have long been certainties in a dissident’s life in Cuba: the weekly marches of the Ladies in White; the hours, days, years spent behind bars; the crowds of government supporters and state agents at the doors of activists, hurling eggs, insults or blows.

And until last week, many dissidents say, there was the United States, a predictable ally and defender of those who dared to protest openly against the Cuban government.

Now, some say, President Obama has put an end to that certainty.

“He betrayed those of us who are struggling against the Cuban government,” Ángel Moya, a former political prisoner whose wife, Berta Soler, leads the Ladies in White, said of Mr. Obama’s decision to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. “There will be more repression, only this time with the blessing of the United States.”

As the United States and Cuba enter a period of unprecedented dialogue, many dissidents who have stood shoulder to shoulder with American officials in condemning the Castros contend that Mr. Obama gave away too much — and got too little in return.

As part of the deal with the United States, the Cuban government freed Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor jailed on the island, and agreed to release 53 prisoners who Washington said were being held for political reasons.

Ms. Garro’s name was on that list, the senior American official said, and she was freed on Dec. 9 with two other prisoners — more than a week before the deal was officially announced.

Many dissidents argue that the United States surrendered its leverage without extracting broad political changes, and they wonder whether American officials will continue to press as hard for reform now that a deal has been struck.

But experts say dissidents fear something else as well: that in an era of negotiation, dissidents who reject dialogue will become irrelevant.

“The hard-liners here will have to either engage, or perish,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Obama ended the posture of nonengagement “with a stroke,” he said, adding: “Obama had a conversation with Raúl Castro. Then why can’t they?”

Cuban opposition groups have been prone to rivalries and failed to gain much of a following among ordinary Cubans, experts and other government critics say.

In the meantime, a new wave of activists and critics has emerged — on and off the island — that is no longer governed by a simple polarity: pro- and anti-revolution.

They are bloggers, artists, rappers, writers and economists of all ages, many of them Internet savvy. Even some who profess loyalty to the revolution write cutting commentaries on the failings of the system. Many of them believe that the end of hostilities will allow more debate and bring openings that could lead, eventually, to democracy.

“Civil society in Cuba is a whole group of actors who have social and cultural roles and different political visions,” said Roberto Veiga, director of Cuba Posible, an organization that promotes political dialogue. “Last week’s announcement was a great gesture of détente, and we Cubans have to make the same gesture with one another.”

Keen to signal that détente did not mean taking pressure off the Castro government, Mr. Obama said last week, “I share the concerns of dissidents there and human rights activists that this is still a regime that represses its people.”

“I don’t anticipate overnight changes,” he added.

Nor do the dissidents. Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human rights in Cuba, said the system of political repression was too sweeping — and the government too entrenched — for the loosening of the embargo to ensure change.

He and other critics contended that the police held dozens of activists for hours on Dec. 10, only days before the government announced the new relationship with the United States.

Loosening the embargo might help more Cubans see that “the first cause of poverty and lack of liberty is not the embargo, it’s the totalitarian government of Cuba,” Mr. Sánchez said. Still, he said, he is “profoundly skeptical.”

Antonio Rodiles, whose project, Estado de Sats, hosts political debates and publishes them on the Internet, said the American government had miscalculated.

“This is a blank check for the Castros and their heirs in power,” he said.

Mr. Castro, in a speech to the National Assembly last week, acknowledged the two countries’ profound differences over “national sovereignty, democracy and human rights.”

“I reaffirm our willingness to discuss every aspect of these issues,” he said.

Regina Coyula, a blogger who worked for 20 years in state security, said that, while dissidents like the Ladies in White were brave, a country in transition needed a more varied opposition with a more developed vision of how the country will forge a new future.

To begin a truly national debate, activists said, they need to find ways of raising their profiles among ordinary Cubans and reflecting people’s everyday concerns, beyond the issue of freedom of speech. They have called on the government to legalize independent associations, which they believe would make it easier to connect to groups off the island and involve the public.

Spreading the word is not easy on an island where few have Internet access and there is no independent television or printed news media. Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most widely read blogger, has millions of followers around the world, but many Cubans have never read a word she has written.

Experts doubted that a popular movement would emerge in Cuba any time soon, if at all. Largely cut off from the Internet and living in a system where most people depend on the government for a job, Cubans have developed an apathy that will be hard to alter, they said.

Mr. Feinberg predicted that the shift toward political freedom would come from within the ranks of the Communist Party, as it did in Russia.

The United States, he said, “should push for a constructive dialogue between members of civil society and reform-minded people within the government.”

But some doubt that groups like the Ladies in White, many of whose members say the government is illegitimate and should not be recognized, would sit down at the table for negotiations.

Lázaro López, 50, a former political prisoner who stood in solidarity with the women last Sunday as they ended their march in a park shaded by great banyan trees, said the movement was still, and always, “about protest.”

“We just want liberty,” he added. “We want what’s just.”