Shadow Government

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Cuba visa issue is a matter of principle

The usually sober editorial board of the Washington Post misfired badly in a recent editorial, "The refuseniks of Cuba," in which it lambasted the Obama administration for denying visas to a few Cuban academic apparatchiks who wanted to attend an upcoming conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in San Francisco. Now, there are good reasons to criticize ...

Jorge Rey/Getty Images
Jorge Rey/Getty Images
Jorge Rey/Getty Images

The usually sober editorial board of the Washington Post misfired badly in a recent editorial, "The refuseniks of Cuba," in which it lambasted the Obama administration for denying visas to a few Cuban academic apparatchiks who wanted to attend an upcoming conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in San Francisco.

Now, there are good reasons to criticize the administration's decision on the matter -- but on the grounds of its apparent incoherence, rather than as a statement directed against the Castros' totalitarian regime. It turns out that only 11 visas were denied, some 60 were approved, and a few more are under review. Given the non-transparent visa issuance process, there is little to explain why any of the decisions were made, including granting a visa to Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, a noted "sexologist."

Predictably, the result of the administration's apparent split-the-difference approach wound up pleasing no one. Pro-freedom Cuban American members of Congress were irate that the State Department granted travel permission to Mariela Castro, who Senator Robert Menendez called a "vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy, who has defended the regime's brutal repression of democracy activists."

The usually sober editorial board of the Washington Post misfired badly in a recent editorial, "The refuseniks of Cuba," in which it lambasted the Obama administration for denying visas to a few Cuban academic apparatchiks who wanted to attend an upcoming conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in San Francisco.

Now, there are good reasons to criticize the administration’s decision on the matter — but on the grounds of its apparent incoherence, rather than as a statement directed against the Castros’ totalitarian regime. It turns out that only 11 visas were denied, some 60 were approved, and a few more are under review. Given the non-transparent visa issuance process, there is little to explain why any of the decisions were made, including granting a visa to Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, a noted "sexologist."

Predictably, the result of the administration’s apparent split-the-difference approach wound up pleasing no one. Pro-freedom Cuban American members of Congress were irate that the State Department granted travel permission to Mariela Castro, who Senator Robert Menendez called a "vociferous advocate of the regime and opponent of democracy, who has defended the regime’s brutal repression of democracy activists."

Yet, in attempting to make the case for the 11 Cubans who were denied visas, the Post went over-the-top, completely distorting the issue at hand. For example, calling the denied Cubans "refuseniks" eviscerates all known meanings of the term, which originated behind the Iron Curtain and referred to those who requested exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, an act of betrayal in the eyes of authorities from which they suffered greatly.

The fact is that not a single member of the Cuban LASA delegation has ever said or written anything that deviated so far from the party line that they had to pay any professional or personal price. They all live lives of relative comfort and ease under the benign care (and watchful eye) of the regime.

Contrast this to the thousands of Cuban men and women who have dared to think freely and independently and continue to do so. Not only are they harassed daily, jailed, or forced into exile, but many have paid the ultimate price for refusing to relinquish their fundamental human rights. To equate in any way their sacrifices to the experiences of pampered regime elites is simply obscene.

Unable to comprehend this point, the Post can only attribute opposition to the granting of visas to "fear," as if people are afraid the Cubans’ sanctioned talking points couldn’t be rebutted or would change anyone’s opinion about their murderous regime. The assertion is risible on its face.

Rather, the point is that a regime that has denied a truly free and independent thinker such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez permission to leave Cuba some twenty times simply does not deserve to enjoy the same rights as a reward to its academic collaborators, whose all-expenses-paid visit to the United States is designed only to whip up public sentiment against the U.S. embargo anyway.

Then there is the matter of the jailed American Alan Gross, who has been incarcerated in Cuba for more than two years for trying to help Cubans link to the internet without going through regime censors, as is their human right. Once again, in granting any visas to the Cubans, the administration has sent the signal that the abduction of Mr. Gross continues to be cost-free. 

The principled decision would have been to deny all the visas in solidarity with the thousands of Cubans who cannot speak their minds in Cuba or travel freely or had to flee Cuba to enjoy those rights; moreover, to reaffirm that there will not be business-as-usual as long as Alan Gross remains unjustly imprisoned. But all this has been muddled by half-measures: Deny some, allow others. It may be that the administration doesn’t mind drawing both the ire of the right and the left, but political expedience is never a good choice over principle.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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