By Amb. James C. Cason in The Washington Examiner:
Obama's Cuba thaw: a foreign policy or a smokescreen?
President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba — most recently seen in his administration's decision to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — have obscured questions over what should be done to help Cubans be free to choose their own destiny. Cubans aspire to live in a democracy and within an economic system that would permit them — and not just those associated with the military or the Castro family — to improve their lives by engaging in economic activities independent from the government.
On December 17, Obama announced that his administration had carried out 18 months of secret negotiations to normalize relations with Havana. As a result, Cuban President Raul Castro released an American hostage named Alan Gross, a development worker who had been sentenced to prison by a kangaroo court for giving laptops and a satellite telephone to a small Cuban Jewish group. For that "crime," Gross had spent five years in Cuba's notoriously squalid prisons.
In exchange, Obama freed three Cuban spies, one of whom was serving a life-sentence for his participation in the murder of three innocent Americans and a Florida resident in international airspace.
Obama also announced that the Cuban dictator would release 53 Cuban political prisoners. But some of them have been re-incarcerated, and by early January Amnesty International reported that it had been receiving "worrying reports" about an increase in harassment and short-term detentions of dissidents. Amnesty warned that "[p]risoner releases will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinion and freedoms in Cuba."
Mind you, the increasing repression occurred while the conversations between Washington and Havana were taking place.
It is difficult to understand how anyone could conclude that the same regime that increased its repression and abuse during is negotiations with the U.S. will become more tolerant and respectful of human rights once its military and security forces are strengthened by the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars from the new American policies.
Now the smokescreen is on. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports from Havana that 1,618 Cuban dissidents were arrested during the first four months of 2015.
On February 9, The Guardian reported on the arrest of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the confiscation of her passport for attempting "to stage a performance about free speech in Havana." There are other artists in prison due to their political views.
On May 25, more than 200 Cuban dissidents were arrested, including members of The Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives and daughters of political prisoners who attend Sunday mass. That day internationally-recognized Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted: "Sundays are not anymore family peaceful days…but journeys of beatings, menacing and dungeons."
Cuban philosopher Alexis Jardines, currently teaching at Florida International University, told me, "President Obama is clinging to the illusion that economic changes brought about by normalizing relations will work in favor of political changes. But he does not ask about the nature of those changes. And that's why he committed the elemental mistake of negotiating without conditions."
In the new "normalizing environment," Professor Jardines says, "people define themselves either as supporters of unconditional negotiations with the Cuban regime or as advocates of focusing on the interests of the Cuban people."
After almost two years of talks, one must conclude that rather than concentrate on bilateral relations, the U.S. should have urged Castro to talk to his own citizens, to listen to them and to allow them a voice in government.
At some point, Cubans will recover their freedom and rebuild their nation. When they do, I hope they will be able to forget this current misguided chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations.
Ambassador James C. Cason served 38 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for three years. He is currently Mayor of Coral Gables, Florida and serves pro bono as president of the Center for a Free Cuba.
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