Below is a must-read excerpt.
‘The Totalitarian Regime Is Intact’: One Cuban’s Message to Obama
The U.S. is pressing ahead with its opening to Cuba. What does that mean for democracy on the island?
[Rosa Maria] Paya recalled Obama’s offers to extend a hand to America’s foes, including Cuba, and then cited a saying of her father’s: “If you are going to extend a helping hand to the Cuban people, you should first ask for the Cuban people to have their hands untied.”
I countered that for nearly 60 years, the U.S. government had largely followed her father’s advice, with little to show for it. Cubans’ hands remained tied, despite all of Washington’s asking and demanding and coercing. The Obama administration appeared to be rejecting that logic, prioritizing dialogue over democracy and betting that a hand extended might ultimately be more beneficial to the Cuban people than a hand withheld. A number of international-relations theorists believe engaging enemies is more productive than isolating them, I noted.
Paya bristled at my mention of theory. “We Cubans shouldn’t be the objects of any theoretical experiment,” she responded. “We are human beings… Conversation [between countries] itself is not enough.” What matters is what’s being discussed. Ten years after the U.S. and China established full diplomatic relations, she pointed out, the Chinese government committed the Tiananmen Square massacre with impunity: “I’m a physicist. I know what [proof] you need to demonstrate a theorem. And we don’t have that. We cannot say that the process that has been started [between the U.S. and Cuba] is a process that is going to end in democracy.”
“What doesn’t need to be proved is that if people can decide [their future], you don’t have a totalitarian regime,” she added.
“Cubans are not less than Americans,” Paya insisted. “Why do we have to sit down and wait for a king to die? No. We can have rights today. There’s not a single reason to deny human rights to a whole population.”
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I asked how that denial manifested itself in her daily life in Cuba. “You cannot choose how to live your life,” she said. “You cannot choose the work you’re going to have after university. You cannot choose the school you’re going to attend. You cannot choose your leaders. You cannot decide to move not even out of the country, [but] inside the country because you could be called—and this is a good one—an ‘illegal’ in your own country. National deportations [from Havana to other parts of the country] are taking place in Cuba.” And if you join civil society or oppose the government and political system, “then you could face prison, you could face isolation, you are definitely going to suffer the persecution of the state security [forces]. And if you succeed [in your campaign for political reform], like my father, then you could face death.”
Paya is now lobbying both Cubans and international actors to exert pressure on the Castro regime to hold a nationwide referendum on the Cuban political system. Such a vote, in her mind, could result in a constituent assembly that drafts a new constitution and a transitional government that organizes free and fair elections. U.S. officials, she reasons, should be talking to their Cuban counterparts not just about coffee sales and commercial flights, but also democratic reforms, like the plebiscite, that are advocated by Cubans.
But it’s far easier to talk coffee than constitutions. After all, the Cuban Constitution enshrines the country’s socialist system as “irrevocable.” And, as Paya herself admits, authoritarians don’t “commit suicide.”