Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Obama in Cuba: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"[T]here is no distinguishing between good or better dictatorships; between left-wing or right-wing dictatorships; they are simply dictatorships." - Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas,“Fifty Years without Freedom”  January 2, 2009

On March 21, 2016 President Obama laid a wreath at Havana's José Martí Memorial
President Barack Obama and his family made history this week when they visited Cuba beginning on Sunday, March 20th  and leaving for Argentina on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 22nd. Whether one is a supporter or a critic of the President's Cuba policy this fact cannot be denied. However what the impact of this official visit will be in the weeks, months and years to come requires an analysis that looks at what was positive, what was negative, and the imagery surrounding the visit. In short looking at what was good, what was bad and what images could be viewed as unfortunate or negative i.e. ugly through the optics of what would help Cubans be the authors of their own destiny versus assisting the Castro regime in a dynastic succession to secure power for another generation.

Guest book entry signed by President Obama at the José Martí Memorial on March 21

 At the same time the past three days need to be placed within the context of the Obama administration's efforts beginning in 2009 to normalize relations with the regime in Cuba. Secondly, the Castro regime sent its own signals during this visit with scores of Cuban democratic activists, human rights defenders and independent journalists roughed up and arbitrarily detained on the day of the President's arrival. This message was meant for the Cuban people that even with a high profile visit that the dictatorship had the will to carry out repression.

Finally the discussion generated around the visit focused on political prisoners on the one hand and short term arbitrary detentions on the other hand but failed to address the extrajudicial execution of opposition leaders beginning in 2010. Also not mentioned in the English speaking media was the escalation in violence against non-violent activists following the announcement of normalized relation on December 17, 2014, best reflected in the case of Sirley Ávila León who was nearly killed in a machete attack on May 14, 2015 in which she was left an invalid, then denied proper medical attention afterwards. The international media treated the extreme violence of the Castro regime as something of the distant past from the early years of the revolution. This ignores the brutal and murderous reality that continues to the present day.

The Good

"It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Marti, who gave his life for the independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom and self-determination live on in the Cuban people today."
- Barack Obama, March 21, 2016 Guest book entry at the José Martí Memorial

Meeting with Civil Society Members on the afternoon of March 22, 2016
In his speech to the Cuban people on March 22, 2016 President Obama made a number of statements that will hopefully have a positive impact for years to come in Cuba. An appeal to nonviolence and reconciliation is a theme throughout the speech that begins in the fourth paragraph:
“Cultivo una rosa blanca.” In his most famous poem, Jose Marti made this offering of friendship and peace to both his friend and his enemy.  Today, as the President of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz.
 Later in the speech he cites nonviolence icon Martin Luther King Jr. to explain the Obama administration's decision to change policy:
And I've always believed in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now” -- we should not fear change, we should embrace it. 
President Obama offered an outline of his beliefs on matters of human rights and democracy beginning with a quote from the Cuban independence leader whose memorial he had visited the day before:
As Marti said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.” So let me tell you what I believe.  I can't force you to agree, but you should know what I think.  I believe that every person should be equal under the law.  Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads.  I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.   I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections. Not everybody agrees with me on this.  Not everybody agrees with the American people on this.  But I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.
The President also spoke candidly about the short comings of the United States on race, his own path and the ability of democracy to overcome injustices:
We do have challenges with racial bias -- in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society -- the legacy of slavery and segregation.  But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better.  In 1959, the year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states.  When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South.  But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials.  And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States.  That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change. I’m not saying this is easy.  There’s still enormous problems in our society.  But democracy is the way that we solve them.
This speech most likely raised expectations in the population, especially the plurality that have black ancestry, and for decades have been told to be grateful to the Castro regime because in the United States blacks do not have any opportunities. The Obama family is a powerful refutation of this regime narrative.

President Obama meeting for two hours off the record with members of the democratic opposition with different ideological tendencies is of great importance because of its rarity these days. 

 The Bad

President Obama in bilateral meeting with Raul Castro also meets with Alejandro Castro
On March 21, 2016 in the bilateral meeting with Raul Castro, President Obama also met with and greeted Alejandro Castro ( in the picture above on the far right). He is considered the man who will take over for Raul Castro when he retires in 2018. President Obama's visit and meeting with both Castros can have the unintended effect of assisting in the dynastic succession of the dictatorship prolonging the regime another generation.

President Obama on December 17, 2014 in his address announcing the normalization of relations made the claim that there had been a static policy of isolation for the previous half century that had failed. He repeated the same idea in Cuba on March 22, 2016:
What the United States was doing was not working.  We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth.  A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century.  The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them.
The trouble is that this statement is not factually accurate. First the Kennedy Administration between 1960 and 1963 sought to violently overthrow the Castro regime first with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and later with Operation Mongoose that sought to assassinate Fidel Castro. It was under the Johnson administration that the policy of isolation and containment without belligerence went into full effect.

Secondly, between 1977-1980 during the Carter administration and again between 1993 - 2000 during the Clinton Administration the United States engaged the Castro regime, as the Obama administration is doing today, and the results were disastrous for both Cubans and Americans. Worsening human rights violations, migration crisis, and U.S. national security undermined as the dictatorship obtained greater legitimacy. This led to a return to sanctions and a policy of isolation in both instances.

The implicit and sometimes explicit argument is that pressuring the Castro regime does not work. However, it is also important to note that the only visit of International Red Cross to visit Cuban political prisoners was between 1988 - 1989 after the Reagan administration had tightened sanctions, sought to break the totalitarian regime's monopoly of information with Radio Marti and aggressively challenged the Castro regime at the United Nations Human Rights Commission appointing a former Cuban political prisoner ambassador.
Unfortunately on the theoretical front some concerns also emerge when President Obama asserts that "human rights" and their "universality" are a personal belief it has the potential to downgrade a fundamental principle into an opinion. President Jimmy Carter who visited Cuba in 2002 in his speech to the Cuban people did not assert human rights as a personal belief but as an objective universal value:
I am not using a U.S. definition of "democracy." The term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948, and it was defined very precisely by all the other countries of the Americas in the Inter-American Democratic Charter last September. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.
Carter offered greater specificity on the differences between the American and Cuban regimes:
 Democracy is a framework that permits a people to accommodate changing times and correct past mistakes. Since our independence, the United States has rid itself of slavery, granted women the right to vote, ended almost a century of legal racial discrimination, and just this year reformed its election laws to correct problems we faced in Florida 18 months ago.   Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements. Your Constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.
Things go from troubling to a matter of great concern when President Obama in his March 22, 2016 speech to the Cuban people equates the ideals of the rebellion that ended British rule and established the United States with the ideals of the revolution that lied itself into power claiming to be democratic, only to install a communist dictatorship through revolutionary terror were profoundly different
The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution -- America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world -- those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy.
In one case the ideals where applied, although imperfectly, towards building a more perfect and democratic union in the second democratic ideals were paid lip service but Marxism - Leninism was the driving force to take power and purge dissenters. The President does a disservice to his audience conflating the two.

Obama's speech praises the Cuban exile community and Miami but in exchange, perhaps for time reasons, looses critical specificity on the projects of the Cuban opposition in 2016. President Carter was able to outline in 2002 a citizen initiative that had shaken the dictatorship and caught the attention of the world:
That fundamental right is also guaranteed to Cubans. It is gratifying to note that Articles 63 and 88 of your constitution allows citizens to petition the National Assembly to permit a referendum to change laws if 10,000 or more citizens sign it. I am informed that such an effort, called the Varela Project, has gathered sufficient signatures and has presented such a petition to the National Assembly. When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country.
President Carter also made some specific requests in 2002 to the Cuban regime that were not made by President Obama but that are still relevant in 2016:
I would ask that you permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and that you would receive the UN Human Rights Commissioner to address such issues as prisoners of conscience and the treatment of inmates. These visits could help refute any unwarranted criticisms.
Obama offered no specifics on opposition projects or specific requests, despite an atmosphere in which human rights have seriously deteriorated over the past seven years. President Carter managed greater specificity and demands without offending his Cuban hosts.

The Ugly

President shook hands with Gustavo Machin who was involved in Oswaldo Payá killing
Unfortunately it seems that President Obama was poorly served by his staff over the three day visit several unfortunate images emerged that do not help the Obama administration, have angered many in the Cuban exile community, and may send an unintended message that the worse actors in Cuba willbe able to operate with impunity.

For example in the picture above President Obama on the right shakes hands with Gustavo Machin, a spy who served as a diplomat for Cuba in the United States and was expelled for his actions there. He appeared in 2002 when he was identified as Aaron Modig's "interrogator" in the Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero cover up when witnesses needed to be silenced.

The image of President Obama photographed with the Ministry of the Interior in the background with Che Guevara prominently featured and used by Cuban official media as endorsement of the violent revolutionary martyr sends an unfortunate message around the world. 

President Obama and General Raul Castro do the wave during baseball game
 Finally, the images of President Obama with Raul Castro during the The Tampa Bay Rays exhibition game with the Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinamericano are regrettable considering that the Cuban dictator has been associated with extrajudicial killings from the early days of the Cuban Revolution when he blind folded individuals before having them shot by firing squad, to the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down in 1996, and Oswaldo Payá in 2012, just to name three, of many, instances.

Raul Castro blindfolding man about to be executed
President Obama ignored uncomfortable truths when he announced the end of the Cold War in Cuba in his speech.
"I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people."
It is the dictatorship in Cuba not the Cuban people or the United States that wants to continue the Cold War. For example, the Castro regime was caught in 2013 smuggling tons of weapons to North Korea, including ballistic missile technology, and was caught smuggling another weapons shipment in Colombia in 2015.  During the secret negotiations between the two countries, Cuba somehow got its hands on a U.S. Hellfire missile in 2014 that had been used in a military exercise in Europe. At the same time the State Department politicized a report in 2015 on human trafficking to place the Castro regime in a better light.

Reviewing Obama's visit to Cuba one finds lights and shadows. Whether his visit helps Cubans to be authors of their own destiny or the Castro family to further entrench in power will be revealed over the next few years. This visit to Cuba will be remembered good or bad for a long time to come. Let us hope and pray that Obama's official visit to Cuba does not end up as Calvin Coolidge's,  strengthening a dictator and prolonging political unrest for the Cuban people.

President Obama and General Raul Castro at baseball game

 The Cuban dictatorship allowed the live broadcast of the entire speech but going forward will selectively play those portions that are convenient to advance their interests report dissidents on the island. Sadly, the Obama speech does have elements that they can exploit. Cuban democrats will have to endeavor that the Cuban people be given access to the full speech and the excerpts that address what the Castro regime would prefer be forgotten.

Which image will win out in the public consciousness Obama under the watchful eye of Jose Marti or Obama before the Ministry of the Interior with Che looking down? Obama meeting with Cuban dissidents or meeting with Raul Castro and shaking hands with Gustavo Machin, who was involved in the untimely demise of Oswaldo Paya in 2012? 

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