WASHINGTON—When President Barack Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that the United States and Cuba would begin the process of normalizing relations between the two countries after 50 years of estrangement, some experts welcomed the president’s initiative.
For example, the former deputy foreign minister of Mexico and Brookings Institution’s senior fellow Andrés Rozental called it “a breath of fresh air.”
Brookings Institution senior fellows Ted Piccone and Richard Feinberg—Cuban experts—sat in on some of the secret discussions, working group meetings, and joint research projects that led to the president’s announcement.
However, others who have directly experienced the Castro dictatorial regime’s policies considered the president’s announcement a betrayal, and disgraceful.
On Jan. 23, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington-based think tank, held a forum to make the case against the normalization policy with the Castro regime.
In addition, this forum served as a counter to the Latin American scholars from the think-tank, Brookings Institution, and its project, U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition, who had publicly supported the president’s normalization policy.
Not only Brookings’ scholars were supportive of the president’s normalization policy. Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, identified others at the forum, including the New York Times, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Council of the Americas, The Atlantic Council, Washington Office on Latin America, Cuba Study Group, Cuba Now, and Center for Strategic Studies. All were aware, he said, that some change was imminent, and gave encouragement to the president’s new policy of engagement with the Castro regime.
Calzon charged that these groups, for about a year, had secretly assembled “an agenda” to get the embargo lifted and to get Cuba off the terrorist export list.
Basically, the forum participants expressed a belief that the Castro regime is so oppressive and odious that to normalize relations amounts to a betrayal of the people who have been jailed, beaten, and killed. They are concerned that the president and supporters of the policy misunderstand the regime’s true nature.
Perhaps the perspective of the moderator for the discussion, Ana Quintana, best epitomized this sentiment. She is a Heritage research associate, specializing in Latin America. Her parents came over to the United States in 1981 with 125,000 Cubans during the Mariel Boat lift. She wrote nearly a week after the President Obama’s normalization speech about her family’s experience.
“My grandfather had never allowed his kids to participate in the mandatory Communist Party youth groups. My grandmother … never gave up her Catholic beliefs, despite the widespread condemnation of Christianity under communism. Because of this, they were punished regularly by the dictatorship.”
Her grandparents’ home was vandalized by government goons. The homes of others were destroyed and the occupants assaulted in the streets. The government encouraged mobs to call them ‘gusanos,’ Spanish for ‘worm,’ in other words, traitors to the revolution.
“My generation understands Cuban reality, and we also feel the pain of what the president has done. Don’t count on our support for ‘normalization.’ We will never betray our parents, or the country of their birth.”
One of the forum speakers was Rosa María Payá, the daughter of slain dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. She carries on the work of her father, one of Cuba’s most respected dissidents, who founded the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement, which through nonviolent civil disobedience, opposes the Cuban Communist Party’s one party rule.
Mr. Payá gained international recognition for a petition that called for a plebiscite in Cuba. He used the right to petition, which is granted in the Cuban Constitution. The petition garnered 25,000 signatures—a remarkable achievement in a country of 11 million under a repressive government.
Mr. Payá was subjected to repeated threats and intimidation, and many of his close associates were jailed. He died in July 2012 in an auto “accident,” when the car was driven off the road as it was rammed by a state vehicle from behind. Though no credible inquiry into the circumstances of his death has been done, Payá is widely believed to have been assassinated by the Castro regime. At the hearing into the accident, several of the journalists and bloggers were detained by the Cuban government for several hours, according to Amnesty International.
Like her father, the daughter calls for “free and fair elections” in Cuba and a national plebiscite. She said that it doesn’t make sense to normalize relations with “a country that is not normal,” and doesn’t represent the Cuban people. “It’s not normal, because this government violates the human rights of its own people on a daily basis.”
She said, “No one who is younger than 80 years old in my country has ever participated in free elections.” And, “To leave the island or enter the island is not a right the Cubans have. It’s a privilege that the government gives you.”
Ms. Payá said the administration left the Cuban people’s wishes to decide their own fate out of the discussion. Probably with her father’s murder in mind, she said the impunity needs to stop.
Ambassador Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State, said, “There is a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress that normal relations with Cuba should be reserved for a regime that is moving toward democracy.” He said the U.S. should engage with the Cuban people and “not placate the regime that torments them.”
“Is the president doing the people any favors by saying that their rights do not matter, because he’s in a hurry to trade with the bankrupt government of Cuba?”
He played down the benefits of the new Obama regulations that make it easier to travel to Cuba and visit family members or conduct business. More U.S. tourism will mostly benefit the regime’s hospitality sector, he said, “all of which is co-owned by the regime and most of which benefits the military and security apparatus.”
Both Calzon and Noriega warned that the much hyped reforms that the Cuban government made were not what they seem. The 53 political prisoners that the regime released is a case in point.
Calzon said that the release was not immediate. The hope was that they would be released before the holidays but that didn’t happen. After more than two weeks elapsed, the State Department put out a list. Checking the names over, Calzon said, one had already been released, and a number of prisoners were due to be released shortly anyway. Some of the prisoners who were released were brought back to prison.
Moreover, it’s not an amnesty, Calzon said. “These folks are conditionally released. They are told that if they engage in criticism of the regime, they can and do get sent back to prison.”
It’s common practice that Cubans are arbitrarily detained, often held for a few days or more, held incommunicado so their families don’t know where they are, and they are routinely beaten, he said.
Ms. Payá said the regime easily adds more political prisoners—50 more or 100 more—as bargaining chips in negotiations. “Political prisoners will always be at the center of our demands, but we need to understand, it is one of the strategies of the Cuban government.” The root of the problem needs to be corrected, she said.
Noriega said, “While the Obama administration was holding secret talks with Havana, the Castro government arrested more than 9,000 dissidents, independent journalists, human rights activists, and other political opponents.”
Ambassador Noriega said that we should have reserved normal relations for a post-Castro transition, and then leverage reforms—lifting travel restrictions, liberalizing cash transfers in support of families, small farmers and humanitarian projects, and allow telecommunications companies to offer services. Noriega said that the U.S. should not have made these concessions unilaterally while getting nothing in return.
The panel would have liked to have seen a transitional government in Cuba before embarking on normalization. Noriega cited the Title II of the Helms-Burton Act that requires Cuba free all political prisoners, dismantle the police state, and commit to holding fair elections in 18 months before normal trade relations would be established.
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