- 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.
A leading Cuban dissident came to Washington last week to urge U.S. policymakers not to abandon those working for peaceful change on the island, as President Barack Obama’s White House continues its mono-focus on normalizing relations with the Castro regime.
Physicist Antonio Rodiles — whose bloody visage received widespread attention after government security forces beat him in 2012 — told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that the Obama administration should recognize “who its friends are” in Cuba, and not marginalize those struggling for precisely the kind of change that Obama professes to want.
“We’re the friends of the [democratic] world. And we’re taking the risk for that. We need your support,” he said.
Rodiles warned observers not to be fooled by the process of “fake change” underway in Cuba under Raul Castro, who is interested only in transitioning power to his immediate family members. “There should be no doubt that the regime is taking concrete steps to continue the dynasty,” he said.
Rodiles said the only possibility of real change in Cuba will come when the Castro family is out of the picture and the regime’s entire totalitarian edifice begins to be deconstructed.
“I don’t want to think that, little by little, in 20 years the regime is going to change,” he added. “I don’t have time for that. I want the regime to change right now.”
I asked Rodiles to explain why the regime, if repressive as ever, currently allows dissidents to travel to the United States and return to Cuba. He told me it was part of the regime’s incurred “cost” to project an image of change for foreign consumption. He said the situation for him and his fellow dissidents remains unchanged on the ground.
That remained true, he lamented, after the administration’s unconditional overtures to the Castros. “Right now, the regime feels more comfortable, more legitimate, and now they are more violent,” he said.
The statistics, regrettably, bear that out. The Miami Herald cites the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in Cuba in 2015, a 315 percent increase from five years ago. In January and February of this year alone, more than 2,500 people were arrested for political reasons.
But the even bigger indictment of the administration’s misguided Cuba policy is the number of Cubans who simply want out. Citing U.S. Coast Guard statistics, the Miami Herald reports, “if the Cuban migrant flow by sea continues at the same pace, total interceptions, sightings or arrivals during fiscal year 2015 — 4,476 — may be surpassed before the end of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.”
The rote media explanation is that Cubans fear that Obama’s rapprochement could mean an end to special immigration privileges. However, this fails to explain two things: Why, if Cuba is “changing,” as the president’s echo-chamber denizens want us to believe, are Cubans continuing to flee? If the goal of Obama’s policy is to “improve the lives of Cubans,” then why are record numbers of Cubans leaving?
The answer, of course, is that most Cubans have about as much faith in the Castros’ ability to change after six decades as they do in Obama’s ability to make their lives better. Indeed, as Rodiles says, to most Cubans, Obama’s about-face on U.S. policy signaled the exact opposite: namely, accepting the permanence of the regime.
Other aspects of Obama’s outreach have also failed to bear much fruit. Tourist travel, which Obama has allowed by end-running U.S. law through executive decree, has been captured by the Cuban military, which controls all of the profits while keeping real people-to-people contact carefully controlled. Rodiles says no tourist group has visited him or anyone he knows since 2014.
Obama’s echo-chamberists also claimed that a lower U.S. profile on human rights would allow other countries to step up their support for dissidents and rights activists. Instead, Rodiles says, most embassies have decreased their contact with the opposition in recent months.
None of this will be surprising to anyone with a sober understanding of the nature of the Cuban regime. It was as predictable as the rising sun. But the Cuba play is of a piece with the rest of the administration’s foreign policy outlook, which holds that international discord has as much to do with inflexible U.S. positions (read: commitment to principle) as it does with the belligerent behavior of our adversaries. But such dreamy thinking is why we have faculty lounges and situation rooms. We can only hope the next U.S. president is savvy enough to realize the difference.
Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images