WSJ: Cuba’s Democrats Need U.S. Support

Monday, January 25, 2016
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Cuba’s Democrats Need U.S. Support

Obama has helped the dictatorship but ignored the dissidents.

Cuban dissident leader Antonio Rodiles has been harassed, beaten, imprisoned and may have been injected with a foreign substance—more on that in a minute—by Castro goons. Yet he is calm and unwavering: “They are not going to stop us,” Mr. Rodiles recently told me over lunch here with his wife, Ailer González.
Soviet-style Cuban intelligence is trained to crush the spirit of the nonconformist. Yet the cerebral Mr. Rodiles was cool and analytical as he described the challenges faced by the opposition since President Obama, with support from Pope Francis, announced a U.S. rapprochement with Castro’s military dictatorship in December 2014.

One of the “worst aspects of the new agenda,” Mr. Rodiles told me matter-of-factly, “is that it sends a signal that the regime is the legitimate political actor” for the country’s future. Foreigners “read that it is better to have a good relationship with the regime—and not with the opposition—because those are the people that are going to have the power—political and economic.”

The Cuban opposition is treated as superfluous in this new reality. U.S. politicians visiting the island used to meet with dissidents. Now, Mr. Rodiles says, “contact is almost zero.” When the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana last year it refused to invite important dissidents like Mr. Rodiles or even Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, to the ceremony.

Mr. Rodiles said the mission of pro-democratic Cubans is critical and urgent: “We need to change the message,” making it clear that the regime is “not the future of Cuba.” And this, he says, is the defining moment.

If the Castros hope to transfer power to the next generation—be it to Raúl’s son Alejandro or a Cuban Tom Hagen—as Russia’s KGB forced Boris Yeltsin to yield to KGB veteran Vladimir Putin, they need to do it soon.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Rodiles says, “if they give the country to their families in the condition it is in right now, it will be like handing them a time bomb” about to go off. That’s why, he tells me, this is a unique opportunity for freedom to emerge: The odds of successfully passing the baton in the current economic meltdown are low.

Or at least they would be if Mr. Obama were not offering the regime legitimacy and U.S. greenbacks while refusing to officially recognize the opposition.

Mr. Rodiles has a master’s degree in physics from Mexico’s Autonomous National University and a master’s degree in mathematics from Florida State University. The 43-year-old returned to Cuba in 2010 and is a founder of Estado de SATS, a project to “create a space for open debate and pluralism of thought.”

The police state views this as dangerous and has come down hard on the couple. Amnesty International was among those that called for his release when he was jailed in 2012 for 19 days. In July a state-security agent punched him in the face while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

On Jan. 10 he and Ms. González, along with other government critics, were again attacked by a rent-a-mob on the streets of Havana. This time they were left with what looks like identical needle marks on their skin.

Those wounds are worrisome. More than once the former leader of the Ladies in White, Laura Pollán, was left with open wounds after being clawed and scratched by plainclothes government enforcers. After one such incident in 2011 she mysteriously fell ill and died in the hospital. The government immediately cremated her body and the dissident community has long suspected that she was intentionally infected with a fatal virus by the regime.

Under normal circumstances, the Castro family would have reason to fear the future. Totalitarian regimes collapse, Mr. Rodiles reminds me, “when the people inside the system, not just the elite, but the people who are in the middle, the ones who sustain the system, start to go and look for another possibility.” They do this because they recognize the future is elsewhere so they “move or at least they no longer cooperate.”

Today young Cubans are looking for that alternative. The regime’s promise to Mr. Obama of economic opportunity and growth through small-business startups is a farce because the Castro family operates like a mafia, “and always has,” says Mr. Rodiles. To do well in the current environment the young have to join the system, or else they flee.

Those who join are not ideological but only seek power. “If we can show that we are the ones with the power to transform the country, then these people for sure are going to prefer to be with us.”

Failure is unthinkable for Mr. Rodiles. “We cannot allow the transfer of power because if they transfer the power, we can have these people for the next 20 or 30 years.”