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Dilma in Cuba

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
January 29, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

A confession: President Dilma's trip to Cuba gives me "foreign policy envy." Having travelled to and written about the island for the last 25 years--visiting prisons with human rights monitors, living with families at the height of the "special period" of post-Soviet economic collapse in the early 1990s, interviewing the historicos for my first book, and pushing in Washington for an end to our failed policies, I have fantasized about having the chance to watch my own president make such a trip. And I've hoped that the roadmaps many of us have drafted for an engagement policy with Cuba would guide it. But here in the United States, domestic politics—the perception that Cuban-American voters and campaign financiers will punish a president who goes too far, means we ignore the monumental, albeit slowly-implemented changes under Raul. Our loss, Brazil's gain.

When I first decided to write a column about Dilma's trip to Cuba, I assumed I would tell you about the substance of the economic, social and political reforms—private businesses, capital accumulation, and productivity are now patriotic, not counterrevolutionary—that comprise the government euphemism, "updating of Cuban socialism." But when a journalist from a serious international news agency called me from a city half a universe from Havana to report on the visit, she surprised me by framing it, as the Brazilian press has, as a litmus test of Dilma's human rights policy. After a year in office, Dilma has slowly, and with some uncomfortable detours, signaled an intention to make human rights part of her national and international agenda.

In Cuba, however, it isn't Yoani Sanchez's blog, or her self-aggrandizing and historically false comparison to a young Dilma, that merits attention, or the measure of human rights progress. Her tweets don't hold a candle to the sharp and deeply-focused criticism of the Raul government that can be found, as just one example, in none other than the website of the Archdiocese of Havana, www.espaciolaical.org. There, an unprecedented and ideologically diverse range of voices skewer the government, bureaucracy and the Communist party for their dehumanizing oppression of Cuban citizens. The broadsides mince no words, and yet are intended to be constructive, not histrionic—written in the spirit of loyal, nationalist opposition.

The Catholic Church isn't the only other voice in the game, but its voice, and that of numerous other academics, cultural figures, and journalists force the question: what does dissidence mean in Raul Castro's Cuba? And how should outside powers best support the movement in Cuba toward an open society and economy? The "political dialogue" Minister Patriota and President Dilma intend to carry out with Cuba, plus job creation (Port of Mariel) and the early steps toward more trade and investment—are far more likely to reinforce positive change than playing favorites with this or that "dissident."

We've had more than a century of experience in the United States trying, and failing to pick winners in Cuban domestic politics. If I can't have my own president in Havana, let me take the liberty of offering President Dilma one unsolicited suggestion: talk to Raul about options for Brazil's press to open bureaus in Havana in time for Pope Benedict's trip in March. Coverage of change on the island and the voices that are part of it can only help you and your public as, to paraphrase Pope John Paul, Brazil opens to Cuba and Cuba opens to Brazil.

Julia Sweig is the author of Inside the Cuban Revolution and Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. She is the director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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