The Harvard Crimson, by David Liebers and Michael Silva
As President Obama stepped off Air Force One to begin his historic visit to Havana, he seized the opportunity to fire off a tweet: “¿Que Bola Cuba?” His message, which in Cuban-Spanish slang roughly translates to “What’s popping?” or “What’s good?” was surely intended to ingratiate and serve as an opening olive branch to his hosts. The irony—that the majority of Cubans would never see his message thanks to repressive internet censorship—was entirely lost on the president.
This dissonance summarizes the mood of the two-day spectacle. President Obama, the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge, intended to lay the foundations for renewed cooperation between the two countries. The challenge for the President was to balance the diplomatic goal of demonstrating a workable political relationship with Raul Castro, while paying lip service to the issue of the dictator’s human rights abuses.
Predictably, the results proved awkward. During a joint press conference with President Obama, Raul Castro scolded reporters for asking about human rights violations and lambasted U.S. economic policy. Soon after the conclusion of the visit, an official organ of the state-controlled Cuban media used racially vulgar language to insult the President of the United States. The no-strings-attached commitment from President Obama to lift the embargo emboldened Castro to criticize the U.S. and redeploy his communist message.
Even more embarrassing, as our President posed for photos in front of a Che Guevara mural and tweeted about his trip, thousands of political prisoners—including members of the Ladies in White movement—detained for no reason other than their peaceful opposition to political repression, rotted in jails across the island.
The current Cuban regime has made brutality towards political dissidents a regular part of its operation. Raul Castro denies the presence of political prisoners, yet the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 2,555 detentions in the first two months of this year, after more than 8,600 in 2015. Members of opposition political parties are regularly subject to machete attacks, and refugees stopped by Cuban coastguard risk extrajudicial killing. Despite all this, U.S. leadership seems to have fallen for Castro’s propaganda.
President Obama says he wants to “bury the last remnant” of the Cold War. But his visit will have the opposite effect. It ensures prolonged communist rule in Cuba by extending an economic lifeline and legitimacy to the Castro regime. Seduced by the chance at being the leader who would liberate the Cuban people from the “failed” U.S. embargo, President Obama chose to cement his place in history rather than to stand with those who risk their lives to fight for basic freedoms.
The symbolic power that the United States holds to those standing up to totalitarianism is not easy for those of us born here to understand. But for pro-democratic freedom fighters—whether across the communist bloc in the 1980s, or today in Cuba—American solidarity has been a source of strength. There is no other nation so steadfast in its defense of freedom of expression, basic human rights, and democracy. Like the authors of this piece, one of the left and one of the right, Americans across the political spectrum ought to support these principles. The symbolic power of the U.S. in standing for human rights has eroded in this abandonment of Cuban pro-democratic dissidents.
The pain was real for Cuban-Americans who watched as the leader of the free world befriended the dictator they risked their lives to flee. One such Cuban, Natividad Silva, an 85-year-old retired pharmacist and the grandmother of one of the authors of this piece, fled Cuba in 1962 when the Castros confiscated her small business and life savings. She began fearing for her life as peaceful dissidents around her in Havana were incarcerated, tortured, and killed. Her story is by no means unique. It is shared by the millions of Cuban immigrants in the U.S. and the hundreds of refugees who continue to flee the Castro regime each month.
President Obama turned a blind eye to human rights violations and made the political calculation that his reversal of American policy towards Cuba would represent another jewel in his foreign policy legacy. In doing so, he abolished America’s unique role as a beacon of freedom to the pro-democratic Cuban opposition and to dissidents in totalitarian states around the world.
One month after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the island’s leaders have made clear how they want the new relationship to grow — not very fast.
Last week’s seventh Communist Party Congress was a clear indicator that Cuba’s leaders aren’t going to move at the same pace as the Obama administration.
Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney involved in Cuban issues, said Cuba’s leaders have been consistent in their message since Obama began to normalize relations nearly a year and a half ago.
“It’s amazing how people aren’t listening to them,” he said. “Cuba is irrevocably a socialist nation.”
Supposed to be held every five years, the party plenary is usually gaveled in when the government feels a need to remind Cubans of the rules of the island’s political game.
The latest party featured a surprise appearance by former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who had earlier blasted Obama’s trip.
It also voted Raúl Castro back as the head of the Cuban Communist Party, meaning he could hold the party position — at least as powerful as the presidency — even if he keeps his word and steps down as the official head of state in 2018.
Raúl Castro reminded the gathering that the United States is still “the enemy.”
Delegates reappointed Machado Ventura, 85, known as an enforcer of communist orthodoxy, as party secretary. And the Congress’s 1,000 delegates voted for changes in the Cuban constitution that strengthened the party and barred the island’s nascent private sector from the “concentration of wealth.”
Still, Cuba’s leaders have to balance their devotion to orthodoxy and the aspirations of the Cuban people, many of whom treated Obama as a rock star during his visit.
Some of Cuba’s resistance to change has been passive — it simply hasn’t taken advantage of most of the opportunities Obama offered to increase partnerships and trade, still limited by the U.S. economic embargo that only Congress can end.
Cuba has agreed to re-establish direct U.S. flights to the island and to allow American hotelier Starwood to refurbish and run three Havana hotels.
But outside of the tourism sector, which Cuba opened to foreign companies when the Soviet Union collapsed, not many deals have been made.
“If the Cuban government sees that an opportunity will likely generate new revenues for its tourism sector, that is likely to be entertained,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Kavulich said if an offer “is not perceived to create revenues or has a political context to it,” like Obama’s move to allow Americans to help Cuban entrepreneurs, “progress is not going to be made.”
Kavulich’s company website has countdown clocks on how much longer Raúl Castro and Obama will remain in power in their respective nations. He said members of Congress, lobbyists and advocates must realize that the nature of U.S.-Cuba relations will depend less “on the next occupant of the White House … than what Cuba has accepted or rejected.”
Cuba decided at a secretive Communist Party congress last week to reverse market reforms in food distribution and pricing, according to reports in official media, reflecting tensions within the party about the pace of economic change.
President Raul Castro unveiled an ambitious market reform agenda in one of the world’s last Soviet-style command economies after he took office a decade ago, but the reforms moved slowly in the face of resistance from conservatives and bureaucrats.
At the April 16-19 congress, Castro railed against an “obsolete mentality” that was holding back modernization of Cuba’s socialist economy. But he also said the leadership needed to respond quickly to problems like inflation unleashed by greater demand as a result of reforms in other sectors.
In response, delegates voted to eliminate licenses for private wholesale food distribution, according to reports over the past week in the Communist Party daily, Granma, and state television.
Delegates said the state would contract, distribute and regulate prices for 80 to 90 percent of farm output this year, compared to 51 percent in 2014, according to debates broadcast in edited form days after the event.
Reuters reported in January that Cuba had begun a similar rollback in some provinces, increasing its role in distribution again and regulating prices. The decision at the congress will extend that program.
Data released in March showed that Cuba’s farm output has barely risen since 2008, when Castro formally took over from his brother Fidel, contributing to a spike in food prices blamed on supply-demand mismatch.
Cuba imports more than 60 percent of the food it consumes.
The Union of Young Communists’ newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, reported late last year that the price of a basket of the most common foods increased 49 percent between 2010 and early 2015.
There are no government statistics on food inflation.
While hurricanes and drought have played a part in poor farm output, some experts and farmers say Cuba did not go far enough in allowing farmers freer access to seeds and fertilizers to increase production.
But demand is rising fast. Relaxation of restrictions on self-employment has led to a boom in small restaurants, at a time when Cuba’s detente with the West is leading to record numbers of tourists and an emerging consumer class.
According to the reports, there was no discussion at the congress of moving ahead with plans to allow farmers to buy supplies from wholesale outlets, instead of having them assigned by the state.
Nor was there mention of another reform, also adopted five years ago and never implemented, to have cooperatives join forces to perform tasks currently in state hands, for example ploughing fields.
The state owns nearly 80 percent of arable land in Cuba, leasing most of it to cooperatives and individual farmers. It has a monopoly on imports and their distribution.
“They never fully carried out the reforms and gave them time to work. They stopped half way and appear unable to come up with any other solution than backtracking,” said a local agriculture expert, who asked to remain anonymous.
He said farmers often had no equipment and few supplies such as seed.
The government reported leafy and root vegetable output at 5 million tonnes in 2015, similar to 2008, and unprocessed rice and bean production of 418,000 tonnes and 118,000 tonnes, compared with 436,000 tonnes and 117,000 tonnes eight years ago.
Cuba produced 363,000 tonnes of corn last year, just 3,000 more than when Castro took office.
Sun Sentinel, by Guillermo Martínez
The information came to me from different sources. One was from a friend who I don’t see often enough.The other came from Cesar Pizarro, who I have known since the 1970s at The Miami Herald.
The first one was trying to convince me to travel to Cuba. He did, however, warn me that on the day that one gets on an airplane from the United States to Havana, Cuban-Americans have to leave the Bill of Rights sitting on the airplane. They are no good in Cuba.
Then came a succinct message from Pizarro, with a copy of the page where the U.S. Embassy in Havana details its services for Cuban- Americans. It was chilling.
I could not believe what I was reading, so I went directly to the Internet and found the page that Pizarro had sent to me.
Under the heading of dual nationality, the embassy document addresses what it can and mainly cannot do for people of dual nationalities. This applies to Cubans born on the island that have become American citizens and (this part is incredible and despicable) to the children of Cuban Americans born in the United States.
But, instead of trying to say what the document says in my words, let me pick up a few choice sentences from the document itself.
Under the heading of Dual Nationality, it reads: “The Government of Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born or (and here is the part that to me is unbelievable and unacceptable) or are the children of Cuban parents.
“These individuals will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations, including military service (in Cuba).
“The Cuban government may require U.S. citizens, whom the Government of Cuba considers to be Cuban, to enter and depart using a Cuban passport… . There have been cases of Cuban-American dual nationals being forced by the Cuban government to surrender their U.S. passports,” the document says.
The document also issues a serious warning to all Cuban Americans:
“Cuban-American dual nationals should be especially wary of any attempt by Cuban authorities to compel them to sign ‘repatriation’ documents. The Government of Cuba views a declaration of repatriation as a legal statement on the part of the dual national that she/he intends to resettle permanently in Cuba.
“In several instances, the Government of Cuba has seized the U.S. passport of dual nationals signing declarations of repatriation and has denied these individuals permission to return to the United States.”
The document is indeed chilling.
Venezuela’s public employees will work only on Monday and Tuesday as the country grapples with an electricity crisis.
President Nicolas Maduro announced Tuesday that the government was slashing working hours for at least two weeks in a bid to save energy.
He said the water level behind the nation’s largest dam has fallen to near its minimum operating level thanks to a severe drought. Experts say lack of planning and maintenance is also to blame.
The country’s socialist administration already gave nearly 3 million public workers Fridays off earlier this month, and on Monday initiated daily four-hour blackouts around the country.
The government is now extending the Friday holidays to grade school teachers, though it appears employees of public hospitals and state-run supermarkets will still have to work.
Venezuelans reacted with disbelief to the news that most public workers would hardly be going into the office.
Workers will be paid for the days they’re sent home. Some have been using their Fridays off to wait in lines to buy groceries and other goods. Others have been going home to watch TV and run the air conditioning, leading critics to say the furlough is not an effective energy-saving measure.
Power outages have been a chronic problem in this oil country. Maduro’s predecessor President Hugo Chavez promised to solve the problem in 2010, but little has improved.
Back in 1999, Hugo Chávez promised to take the Venezuelan people to the same “sea of happiness” that Cubans enjoyed under the Castro brothers dictatorship
Incredibly enough, they still voted for him. Now, 17 years later, they are finally arriving at that promised “sea of happiness” and they don’t like it.
About the only thing that can be counted on around the clock at Gustavo Diaz’s home these days is the gas stove.
The food in the fridge is spoiling. The microwave oven sits unused. The television is dark and the stereo system silent. It’s sweaty and uncomfortable inside, thanks to government-imposed electricity blackouts meant to deal with chronic power shortages across the country.
Even getting running water is a problem.
“We can’t go on living like this,” he said. “We Venezuelan people deserve much better.”
Power outages are nothing new for Venezuelans, including Diaz, who lives with his wife and three daughters in a Caracas suburb. But with the government’s recent announcement of a formal rolling blackout program set to last at least 40 days, things have only gotten worse, he said.
“We’ve had rolling blackouts since last month. We used to lose power two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, but now it’s four hours straight,” Diaz said.
Opposition blames corruption, mismanagement
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other government officials blame the El Niño weather pattern and epic drought for the problem. The water level at the Guri hydroelectric dam, which provides 75% of Venezuela’s electricity, is at a record low.
But opposition figures blame mismanagement and corruption for the problems.
Caught in the middle: people like Diaz. Life has taken on new rhythms, dictated by the ebb and flow of power.
“We unplug everything when we lose power so that the appliances don’t get damaged (with power surges) when we get the power back on,” Diaz said.
The blackouts are the most significant step yet the government has taken to save energy.
On April 6, Maduro forced government employees and other workers to take Fridays off. He also plans to push forward Venezuela’s time zone half an hour in May to give people more daylight during working hours.
The capital district in Caracas and some adjacent municipalities are exempt from the rolling blackouts because they house government officials. Nueva Esparta and Vargas — states that heavily depend on tourism — will not be affected either.
But for most Venezuelans, the blackouts add to a litany of other daily burdens.
‘This life is killing us’
The government — cash-strapped because of low oil prices — can’t pay for basic imports such as sugar, flour and eggs. Many Venezuelans wait several hours in lines outside supermarkets, hoping shelves won’t be emptied out by the time they arrive.
Venezuela’s economy shrank 5.7% in 2015 and is expected to contract another 8% this year, the International Monetary Fund says. Inflation has skyrocketed, and it could rise another 500% in 2016, according to IMF projections.
The bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, is worth less than a penny on the black-market exchange.
In Charallave, a working-class area that has historically been supportive of the late President Hugo Chavez and the socialist government, just about every business displays the same sign.
“No hay luz,” it says. (“There’s no power.”)
At a paint store, owner Luis Marcano said sales are way down, not just because of the power outages, but the economic crisis as well.
“I’ve been waiting all morning to sell something,” he said.
At another shop, a woman started to cry when a reporter asked how hard things had been. Unless something gives, she’ll likely have to shut down before the end of the year.
“We can’t live like this anymore,” said the shop owner, who feared reprisals and asked not to be identified. “This life is killing us.”
Earlier this year a delegation of Virginia business leaders traveled to Cuba to explore the potential for commerce there, now that the Obama administration has eased relations between the two countries. At one point, Cuban officials tried to reassure them by vowing that foreign investment could not be “expropriated” except “for reasons of public or social interest.”
But having your money, plants or equipment stolen at gunpoint is not the only peril facing American companies in the Castro Brothers’ island paradise. Just ask Carnival Cruise Lines.
The company recently, and wisely, made a hasty retreat from its announced policy of not allowing Cuban-Americans to take cruises to Cuba. We are not making this up. The company blamed the Cuban government, which restricts how and whether Cuban-Americans can visit. Carnival was just following orders, you see.
What’s more, Cuba does not recognize the American nationality of Cuban-Americans who were either born in Cuba or born to Cuban emigrés. In fact, the U.S. government warns such individuals that they “will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations, including military service.” In some instances, Cuba has even refused to allow such “dual-nationals” to return to the U.S.
Cuba’s reprehensible treatment of its own political dissidents is well-known. So is its treatment of gays and lesbians, who at one time were routinely sent to labor camps for the crime of being gay. That is no longer the case today, and the Cuban regime has tried to reinvent itself as a paradise of gay liberation. That false front is one its critics view, correctly, as little more than pinkwashing.
It’s jarring to watch the American business community boycott North Carolina over that state’s new law regarding LGBT individuals — while racing to see who can open up shop in Cuba, where discrimination is even worse.
No, America’s five-decade embargo did little to change things in the Cuban prison state, and a new approach might produce better results. But those who have flocked to Cuba looking for new business opportunities (a cohort that includes Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe) might want to pause and consider whether the potential gain is worth the risk — not only to their own interests, but to the interests of freedom and justice for all.
President Obama’s visit to Cuba last month laid down a marker. The president hailed the island’s entrepreneurs, met with dissidents, and encouraged openness and democracy in the presence of President Raúl Castro, who rules without any. The regime’s answer has now been delivered at the just-concluded Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party: a loud “no way.”
The four-day conference, held in Havana, ratified the old guard’s hold on leadership. Mr. Castro, 84, was reelected as first secretary of the party, and the delegates cheered a farewell speech from a frail Fidel Castro, 89. Party members seemed eager to snuff out any lingering glow from Mr. Obama’s visit. Raúl Castro referred to the United States as “the enemy” and warned “we have to be more alert than ever.” The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, called the president’s visit “an attack on the foundation of our history, our culture and our symbols.” He added, “Obama came here to dazzle the non-state sector, as if he wasn’t the representative of big corporations but the defender of hot dog vendors, of small businesses in the United States, which he isn’t.”
Obviously, Mr. Obama discomfited the regime. Despite some market reforms and economic tinkering in recent years, the authoritarian system the Castros have built still dominates state and society. The brothers’ intention is to make it impossible for Cuba to undergo the kind of transformation that is an ostensible goal of Mr. Obama’s policy.
According to the Associated Press, on April 8 one of Cuba’s most well-known advocates of economic reform, Omar Everleny Perez, was fired from his University of Havana think-tank position for allegedly sharing information with Americans without authorization. Mr. Perez was a consultant to the Castro government when it launched some market-oriented reforms. He confirmed his dismissal, saying it was not because of his contacts with foreigners but because he wrote critically about the slow pace of economic reform. “Sometimes they don’t like what you write or think,” he said.
Exactly. This is why the authorities relentlessly harassed Oswaldo Payá, a champion of democracy who was killed in a suspicious car wreck in 2012 along with a colleague, Harold Cepero; why regime thugs still assault the Ladies in White, relatives of political prisoners who demonstrate weekly; why they rough up other dissidents and free thinkers.
In all the enthusiasm in the United States for more tourism, cultural exchanges and investment in Cuba, there have been far too few demands for more democracy on the island. A lesson of Mr. Obama’s visit, and the Communist Party’s overheated reaction, is that the mere mention of democracy and freedom is a powerful tool. Mr. Obama put it simply in Havana, declaring that “citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear.” Those rushing to Havana lately must not forget to articulate this message, again and again.
Weeks after President Obama’s trumpeted visit to Cuba, the sour notes are still blaring from the communist isle.
The latest discord comes from Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who called Mr. Obama’s ill-advised fence-mending visit “an attack on the foundation of our history, our culture and our symbols,” Fox News Latino reports. To a regime locked in time and ideology, Obama’s mission was nothing more than to “dazzle the non-state sector,” Mr. Rodriguez insisted.
President Raul Castro, who, incidentally, will retain Cuba’s Communist Party’s highest post for another five years, recently called the United States “the enemy” and warned Cubans to remain vigilant against U.S. initiatives that undermine the communist revolution, Reuters reported.
And that followed the vitriol of Fidel Castro, who, just days after Obama’s sojourn, rejected the notion that his country needs anything from the U.S. and insisted that the U.S. embargo won’t soon be forgiven.
So what has changed? Only that more Cubans are fleeing to the U.S. to escape their country’s repressive government and claim asylum benefits, which they fear will run out as U.S. “detente” evolves.
Contrary to the administration’s presumptions, the Castro regime — and its inevitable heirs — will never accept or respect U.S. capitalism and the freedom it enables. Chalk up another foreign policy fumble by an administration that’s become renowned for dropping the ball.