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'New approach' to Cuba must rely on realistic historical assessments

By Daniel I. Pedreira
'New approach' to Cuba must rely on realistic historical assessments
Hundreds of young Cubans gather on November 26, 2016, at Havana University to remember Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who died the day before. File Photo by Alejandro Ernesto/EPA

Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Fidel Castro may have died in 2016, but 60 years after he and his top lieutenants rolled into Havana on tanks, the dictatorship that he set up is far from gone.

His brother and successor, Raúl Castro, has all but faded from the spotlight. The appointment of Miguel Díaz-Canel as Cuba's new leader in 2018 caused some speculation about a possible opening of Cuba's political and economic system. Yet recent news of alleged sonic attacks against American and Canadian diplomats and continued repression of human rights and civil liberties reflect Havana's reluctance for change.

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President Donald Trump's administration has become the 12th U.S. administration to try a new approach toward the Cuban government.

Cuba suddenly became newsworthy again on Dec. 17, 2014, when then-President Barack Obama announced "a new approach" toward the Cuban dictatorship. Much of this "new approach" was based on the premise that some Cubans "have seen us [the U.S.] as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future."

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Obama further alluded to this "colonizer" myth, adding that "we can never erase the history between us," ending his address by stating that "today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future -- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world."

This premise presents an overly simplified view of Cuban history and of U.S.-Cuba relations that prevails in academia, government and the media. Examples abound of Cuban leaders exerting their nation's sovereignty and agency in Cuba's relations with the United States, thus debunking the "colonizer myth."

For many, it is hard to imagine that 75 years ago, the United States and Cuba enjoyed excellent relations. Upon his appointment in late-1944, Guillermo Belt Ramírez (1905-1989) came to exemplify Cuban foreign policy toward the United States.

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It would have been hard to imagine in December 1944, as Belt took his post as Cuban ambassador to the United States, that 40 U.S. embassy employees would suffer "from a range of concussion-like symptoms, including balance problems, memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, headaches and nausea."

University of Pennsylvania researchers have potentially uncovered evidence of brain injuries, but the causes remain unclear. Regardless of what those may be, it is virtually unimaginable that Belt and his American counterparts would have fathomed such a serious diplomatic crisis that imperiled foreign diplomats on Cuban soil.

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The Cuban government's continued repression of human rights and civil liberties was equally unfathomable to Belt and to Cubans of his generation. Belt, along with Drs. Guy Pérez-Cisneros and Ernesto Dihigo y López Trigo, helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948 and is still in effect.

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The human rights situation in Cuba remains abysmal. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an independent NGO based in Havana, reported 639 arbitrary detentions by Cuban authorities during the first three months of 2019 alone. PEN International issued a report and several statements on Decree 349, a Cuban law that restricts artistic expression that came into effect in December 2018, calling it "the most significant attempt by officials to regulate the cultural sector and control a rising generation of independent and globally connected artists."

It is rewarding to see that, 75 years later, some of the international organizations and principles that Belt participated in drafting and developing on Cuba's behalf are speaking up against the Castro dictatorship and on behalf of the Cuban people. The Organization of American States, created in 1948 by Belt and other regional diplomats, has demonstrated its support for the Cuban people through the actions and statements of its secretary general, Luis Almagro, and ambassadors like Carlos Trujillo from the United States.

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Trying a new approach, the Trump administration activated Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act of 1996 (known as the Helms-Burton Law). This allows individuals whose property was confiscated by the Castro dictatorship to sue in U.S. federal courts anyone who benefits economically from the property in question. The Trump administration has also banned group educational and cultural trips known as "people-to-people" trips to Cuba. These actions represent manifestations of the same logic: Cutting Cuba's much-needed cash flow will debilitate the Cuban dictatorship.

Obama was right about one thing: "Change is hard...and change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders." Had Obama and the architects of his Cuba policy looked at the role of Cuban diplomats like Belt in developing bilateral relations during the 20th century, the founding myth of his administration's policy, and the policy itself, may have demonstrated different results.

Five years after the United States re-established relations with Cuba, the lack of principled Cuban diplomats like Belt has led to a stronger policy from Trump's administration.

Daniel I. Pedreira is the author of "An Instrument of Peace: The Full-Circled Life of Ambassador Guillermo Belt Ramírez."

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