Obama visit to Cuba didn't advance liberty or human rights

By Frank Calzon   |   March 25, 2016 at 9:22 AM
1 of 2
| License Photo

WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) -- The day after President Barack Obama ended his historic three-day visit to Cuba, Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of the late Christian Democrat leader Oswaldo Paya, delivered to Cuba's National Assembly a petition with 10,000 signatures urging it to pass legislation to adopt and guarantee civil, political and economic rights for the Cuban people.

Her petition is reminiscent of the civil rights campaigns waged by her father, who died in a 2012 auto accident when the car he was riding in was intentionally rammed, forced off a highway and rolled over.

Cuba's government-controlled news media has yet to print the speech Obama delivered, and its "coverage" of Obama's visit was limited. In Cuba, as in North Korea and in totalitarian governments of the past, not publishing a speech or distributing a book doesn't stop authorities from harshly criticizing what has been said or written. Neither has the Cuban media reported Gen. Raul Castro's response to a foreign journalist to give him a list of political prisoners and he'd see they were released. In fact, the United States had already given the Castro government a list.

At one level, Obama's trip to the island was a success. His very presence – a young, black, American president seen side by side with an old, sickly white general -- was in itself a "counterrevolutionary image." Most Cubans today are not white, and most of the ruling elite are members of the white military gerontocracy. The opposition movement that is now present in every province of the country developed out of a committee to promote human rights that was founded in one of Cuba's most feared prisons, Combinado del Este.

Thus, it is not accurate to say that everything stood still in Cuba for over 50 years. The collapse of communism in Europe and the Soviet Union had its impact. U.S. President Ronald Reagan's short wave radio broadcasts to the island, which mirrors Radio Free Europe's efforts to break Communist censorship in Poland and Czechoslovakia, informed millions of Cubans but American Cuban policy never conditioned significant concessions to Havana of the magnitude provided by Obama to the end of beatings of dissidents and other basic reforms.

Be that as it may, Obama won the hearts of many Cubans, who were surprised when they heard the world's "most important leader" reaching out to them, explaining and seeking their opinion on issues. This is not the manner in which Fidel and Raul Castro or Cuba's other "revolutionary leaders" treat them. In one instance, which years later Cubans remember, a young Cuban dared to ask a government leader why he could not, if he saved the money needed, "travel abroad?" The question was asked at a university assembly, and the student was told "the problem" was "with all of these people wanting to engage in airplane traveling, there would be a major jam in the skies."

Even so, many Cubans on the island remain skeptical, having gone through the euphoria of even longer visits by several popes that didn't change anything. Twenty years ago, it was John Paul II, the Polish pope, who publicly called on the world to open up to Cuba, and for Fidel Castro to open Cuba to the world. Since then, tens of millions of tourists have traveled to Cuba, and commerce with Europe, Latin America and elsewhere increased exponentially. Still the island remains tied down to the government's Cold War mentality and insistence that all economic activity of any importance must be under the control of the government – in reality under the control, as Forbes has indicated, of the Castro family.

Obama has since gone on to Argentina, where he will pay homage to the victims of past dictatorships. Before Obama arrived, there was no controversy between him and the Argentine government of Mauricio Macri about whom Obama would meet with, nor – in sharp contrast with what happened in Cuba – were large numbers of Argentinians put under "house arrest" to prevent them from doing anything that called attention to the lack of freedom in their country.

Despite the political benefits that accrued to Cuba's Castro government by Obama's visit and the millions of dollars the Castro government has collected as a result of Obama lifting restrictions, the Cuban people's struggle for human rights, civil liberties and freedom continues. Many Cubans hope Obama's visit will inspire or force the Cuban government to fulfill its unkept promises, including Gen. Raul Castro's pledge to provide every Cuban a daily glass of milk.

At another level, Cubans resent the fact that their country's future might be decided between Castro, the dictator, and Obama without giving them any voice. In a perverse way, it's as if Obama is returning to an era when U.S. diplomacy embraced military dictatorships throughout Latin America, and American foreign policy was driven by profits for American business rather than showcasing democratic principles and respect for civil and human rights.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington, D.C.

Latest Headlines
Top Stories