Shadow Government

Cuba’s Dissidents Have a Bone to Pick With the New York Times

The Gray Lady has been calling for the embargo to end -- but some Cubans have argued that there are bigger fish to fry.

A man raises his fist with a Cuban flag
A man raises his fist with a Cuban flag during a protest in front of the US embassy building in Mexico City on July 26, 2011 to demand the end of the trade embargo imposed by US against Cuba. Popular and social organizations commemorate the 58th anniversary of the Moncada barrack attack in Cuba. AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent weeks the New York Times has been on what the BBC has called a “Cuban crusade.” Four editorials and three columns in less than two months that all basically conclude U.S. policy towards the Castro regime needs to change (any need for change in the regime’s repressive behavior towards its own people is simply glossed over).

No, nothing significant has happened on the island that justifies the Times’ campaign — no major reform or development that would cause Washington to rethink its policy. Nor do the editorials really add anything new to the debate; they are essentially a pastiche of well-worn arguments and clichés that if only the United States unilaterally changed its behavior then maybe, just maybe, the Castro regime will change its behavior.

The Cuba contributions are the work of newly minted editorial writer Ernesto Londoño, late of the Washington Post where he covered the Pentagon as a reporter. His apparent qualification to editorialize on Cuba (beyond the fact that he speaks Spanish) is that he once went there as a college student.

The opinion pieces have been well-received by the Castro regime, which have featured them prominently in the state-controlled media. Fidel Castro even emerged from his dotage to personally praise them. (They also prompted a smackdown from the Washington Post editorial board here.)

Nevertheless, something notable has resulted from the Times’ fixation on U.S. policy towards Cuba: a remarkable meeting between a group of Cuban dissidents and Londoño that took place recently in Cuba. (Yes, adding to the surreal nature of the whole enterprise, the Times’ writer traveled to Cuba after writing six opinion pieces, not before.)

Londoño met with renowned Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and others associated with the start-up independent news website 14ymedio, who proceeded to give him point-by-point rebuttals to the Times’ Cuba oeuvre. Make no mistake about it, these are not “radical” dissidents; Sanchez doesn’t even support U.S. policy.

But what the dissidents were bent on telling the Times was how irrelevant U.S. policy was to the daily lives of the Cuban people. According to Sanchez, “I don’t care for the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the White House.” Reinaldo Escobar added, “They will have another argument for keeping repression when the embargo is lifted.”

They also condemned the notion that Cuba was reforming under Raul Castro: “All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing are sustained by illegality,” says Eliécer Ávila, also part of the 14ymedio team, meaning pilfering from state inventories to acquire scarce supplies. He says, “Many of these businesses are created so that government officials can place their children, grandchildren, and friends in them.”

They also criticized the Times editorials for their portrayal of Cuba. According to Miriam Celaya, also from 14ymedio, “What is going on with these editorials? They are still giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government.”

Ávila adds, “It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what we need as a nation.”

Powerful stuff. And one hopes that at least one visitor to Cuba returns to the U.S. with simplistic notions dashed that all that needs to happen to change the equilibrium in Cuba is for the U.S. to make unilateral changes to its policy.

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba have come and gone for decades because they all make the same mistake: they demand changes only from the U.S., not the Castro regime. They fall for the regime’s abhorrent ploy to keep 11 million Cubans living in squalor so that they think there is no option but that the U.S. change its behavior. But nothing justifies 50 years of uncompromising dictatorship and the sooner more people accept that, the sooner the Cuba nightmare will likely end.

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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