- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Sadly, the tragic death of another Cuban dissident hunger striker will not change conditions in that island-prison nor provoke governments to reassess their historical indulgence of the Castro regime’s crimes. Business as usual will continue.
In fact, this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is in Cuba promoting business opportunities for Brazilian companies. She plans no meetings with Cuban dissidents.
But the Jan19 death of 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza will not be in vain. Indeed, when decent people arrive in Cuba to pick through the rubble left by the most oppressive regime this hemisphere has ever seen, his sacrifice — and that of thousands of Cuban martyrs before him — will be rightly honored on Cuban soil.
But if there is one immediate purpose that the tragic death of Wilman Villar can serve, it is to put the definitive lie to the currently fashionable meme that Cuba, under Raúl Castro, "is changing."
For example, according to the Associated Press, Cuba just wrapped up a "dramatic year of economic change." The BBC informs us, "Cuba expands free-market reforms," while Reuters adds, "Cuba to free 2,900 in sweeping amnesty."
Frankly, the only thing sweeping Cuba these days — besides the ongoing state repression — is the hyperbole in foreign correspondents’ dispatches.
I have dealt with Cuba’s smoke-and-mirrors reforms in this space before, but to briefly summarize, all interested observers need to know about Cuban "reforms" are two things:
They signify no new recognition of the inalienable rights of the Cuban people by the regime. "Allowing" a few new bits of heavily circumscribed individual economic freedoms is hardly indicative of fundamental change. The relationship between state and citizen remains the same — although instead of controlling 100 percent of the economy, the regime will now control 99.5 percent.
Secondly, recent changes are not meant to reform the system but to save the system. Allowing Cubans to repair children’s dolls outside the purview of the state does not mean Cuba is on the road to a free market; it means the regime is looking for new ways to generate revenue through confiscatory taxes of limited private economic activity.
Raul Castro himself serves as the best spokesman that the regime is not contemplating any kind of fundamental reform. Speaking recently at a party conference, he said, "There has been no shortage of criticism and exhortations by those who have confused their intimate desires with reality, deluding themselves that this conference would consecrate the beginning of the dismantling of the political and social system the revolution has fought for more than half a century."
To be sure, the hyperbole surrounding recent changes in Cuba has an ulterior motive. It is meant to apply pressure on U.S. policymakers to make unilateral changes in U.S. policy, because Cuba is ostensibly "reforming." Thankfully, the Obama administration so far hasn’t taken the bait. In fact, last September, the President took the matter head-on, saying, "They [the Castro regime] certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds."
Indeed, at a time when no quarter is being given to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the suggestion that the U.S. should lessen pressure on an undemocratic regime ninety miles from our shores strikes a wholly discordant note and is unlikely to be entertained by any serious policymaker. The Cuban people deserve no less than what the peoples of those regions deserve: the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Clearly, that concept was as alien to Muammar al-Qaddafi as it is to the Castro brothers — which is why they deserve the same fate.