from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Cuba: Another View

March 19, 2012

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The views of my CFR colleague Julia Sweig on Cuba appear in an interview posted on our web site here under the title “The Frozen US-Cuba Relationship.”

Ms. Sweig sees massive changes occurring in Cuba under Raul Castro: “Raul holds the reins… and, domestically, the politics of implementing a fairly wide range of economic and political and social reforms are his priority. In a deal that was coordinated with the help of the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain, he released all of the political prisoners in Cuba. He also is taking a number of steps that imply a major rewriting of the social contract in Cuba to shrink the size of the state and give Cuban individuals more freedom--economically, especially, but also in terms of speech--than we’ve seen in the last fifty years.”

Why does Obama administration policy not react to these reforms? “The Obama administration, consistent with the approach of the Bush administration, has made a political decision to subordinate foreign policy and national interest-based decisions to domestic politics with respect to its Cuba policy.”

I have a different take on events in Cuba. It seems to me the Castros, Raul and Fidel, are trying to move from a Soviet-style dictatorship to a Chinese-style dictatorship, one where there is no political freedom whatsoever but prosperity provides some support for the regime. The very week when Ms. Sweig’s interview appeared, so did this report from BBC: “Cuban police have arrested dozens of opposition activists, a week ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Most of those detained are members of the protest group Ladies in White, who are demanding the release of political prisoners. Many were stopped as they staged their silent weekly protest march along an avenue in the capital, Havana. The group says the country’s Communist authorities have increased pressure on them in recent days.”

This seems at variance with Ms. Sweig’s claims about increasing freedom of speech. So does this, from Amnesty International just a few weeks ago: “Cuban authorities have refused blogger Yoani Sánchez permission to travel to Brazil to attend a documentary screening on freedom of expression. Amnesty International believes that this refusal is a punitive measure in response to her outspoken criticism of civil and political rights in Cuba.”

I also have a different explanation of the Obama administration’s policies from that of Ms. Sweig, who as noted above attributes them to domestic politics. In fact Mr. Obama changed U.S. policy to allow many more Americans to travel to Cuba, and to allow much more money to flow from Cuban Americans to relatives in Cuba—both terrific boons to the Cuban economy. What has been the regime’s response? On human rights matters, the repression continues. One of the worst examples occurred last month. As Amnesty reported, “Prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on 23 February following a prolonged hunger strike. He was one of 75 people arrested during a crackdown by the authorities in March 2003, and was serving a 36-year prison term at the time of his death.”

And then there is the continuing imprisonment of an American aid worker, Alan Gross. Here is Ms. Sweig’s comment: “There’s been no real diplomacy; there’s no negotiating framework that I’ve seen for a very long period of time, and again, that has to do with domestic politics. It’s very hard to understand otherwise why this guy’s still in jail. The United States has repeatedly asked the Cuban government to release Gross unilaterally, with no commitments on our end. Asking for unilateral gestures, having rebuffed or ignored or failed to read the signals from Cuba, has created this impasse. Having said that, there can be a diplomatic, humanitarian solution, and I see no value to keeping Gross in jail and hope he will be released as soon as possible.”

I take a different view. It is not at all hard to figure out “why this guy’s still in jail,” for we are dealing with a communist dictatorship. Ms. Sweig “sees no value” in keeping Mr. Gross in prison but obviously Raul Castro, the reformer, does, raising the question of whether Ms. Sweig’s understanding of the “reforms” and of Mr. Castro’s intentions and plans is accurate. Mr. Gross, 62, has been in a Cuban prison for two years and has been sentenced to a 15-year term for the crime described by The New York Times as “distributing satellite telephone equipment to Jewish groups in Havana.”

As to the idea that there has been no diplomacy, in September former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson traveled to Cuba to discuss the Gross case and see Gross, at the invitation of the Cuban regime--but was not then permitted to visit the prisoner. What did Mr. Richardson make of it all? “Perhaps the Cuban government has decided it does not want to improve relations” with Washington, he said; “Perhaps that is the message it is sending….I have been here a week and tried through all means — with religious institutions, diplomats from other countries, all kinds of efforts — and I see that this isn’t going to change,” he said upon leaving.

Ms. Sweig’s overall conclusion is that “Cubans want change and they want much more space--economic space, speech space. I would say political party space, like having a multi-party system, that’s not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves with the wonderful education they have and to run businesses and to have the state get out of the way.” Here again we disagree, for I believe Cubans want to be free. I believe they also recognize that they will never attain the prosperity they seek so long as aged communist leaders control their economy. I cannot join in the supposition, so often made about people living under repressive regimes, that they don’t mind the lack of political freedom so much and just want a higher income. If the “Arab Spring” teaches anything, surely it is that even desperately poor people seek not only a better income but an end to censorship and torture and secret police raids and fake elections.

This is a useful debate, I hope, and perhaps over the coming months we can continue it.

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