When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the era of totalitarian communism seemed to be at an end. Within two years, the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, and still more communist governments had been toppled to make way for new democracies. Communism was discredited and defeated, liberalism was sweeping away half a century of oppression. Not so everywhere, however. Despite the best efforts and, in many cases, the lives of student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party maintains its stranglehold on political power to this day, as do the Vietnamese Communist Party and Laotian Communist Party.
The purest holdouts from the age of communism, however, are the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and the Republic of Cuba. Both center their regimes on an autocratic cult of personality. Both have mired their peoples in backwards, corrupt, state-centric, command economies. Both routinely and brutally suppress all forms of political dissent. The prospect of an American presidential visit to Pyongyang is laughable and would rightly be derided as a betrayal of everything the free world stands for. A US President in Havana, however? Apparently, that notion is a diplomatic milestone, a historic gesture of friendship and progress, and a significant improvement of the fortunes of the Cuban people. How exactly this paradigm shift came about is a wonder to many of the over two million people who live in the United States as Cuban exiles or their descendants.
President Obama’s March visit to the island nation was a final flourish capping a 15-month thaw in relations between the two countries, which have remained frosty since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 swept Fidel and Raul Castro into power. After touring Old Havana together and engaging in a joint press conference, Raul and Obama took in an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The US president also met briefly with a few dissident groups, including the Ladies in White, praising their courage. Obama’s strategy, it appears, is to open the island to the flow of American trade, tourism, and ideas which will eventually result, somehow, in democracy for the Cuban people. He rejects what he views as an antiquated antipathy to dealing with communist dictators and instead postulates that mutual understanding and commerce will eventually usher in liberal change. Indeed, the winds of capital are already blowing in Havana. Starwood, the American hotel group, recently announced a deal with the Cuban government to acquire three hotels in the port city, anticipating a flood of Western tourists who will inevitably flock to see the ‘vintage’ cars and ‘quaint’ deserted streets of a society robbed of over fifty years of economic and technological progress. Heaven forbid that Americans in Cuba live without Wi-Fi, clean and safe living quarters, and adequate food; in other words, live like Cubans in Cuba.
The farcical hypocrisy of America’s newfound warmth for the Cuban government only becomes more evident as more details of the arrangement are examined. In 2014, when the US-Cuban thaw was being announced, President Obama remarked on the development of human rights in Cuba, declaring “If we’re going backward, there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in validating the status quo.” And yet, there he was last month, making nice with a government that had arrested 526 political opponents just in the two weeks leading up to the American visit. Amnesty International reports that these kinds of political detentions are occurring more frequently and more violently now than in years past. Even just a few hours before Obama’s arrival, hundreds of members of the Ladies in White, a peaceful group protesting political imprisonment, were accosted and arrested by regime authorities as they were leaving Palm Sunday Mass. This is the status quo which Obama had so plainly refused to validate with a visit in 2014. This remains the status quo which Obama has just validated with a visit in 2016. Indeed, just an hour after his centerpiece speech at the Gran Teatro, a group of protestors was attacked, beaten black and blue, and arrested. The administration will claim it did its duty to the Cuban opposition by meeting with a few dissident groups, despite the disapproval of the Castro regime. However, at this gathering, the President made no calls for sweeping change in the Cuban political structure, nor did he challenge the tyrants who rule Cuba to allow political freedom, nor, of course, did he outline any practical solutions to the oppression of the Cuban people that the United States could pursue. Instead, he offered the equivalent of a perfunctory ‘good luck, keep it up,’ before being whisked away to soak up the sun at a baseball game with Raul Castro, the architect of Cuban misery.
Juan Le Batard, an analyst and TV host for the American sports network ESPN, is a Cuban-American with a self-professed disinterest in politics. However, in a scathing article, he captures the feelings of many in the Cuban-American community watching the President of the United States and all the bastions of the American press (which has no free counterpart in Cuba) ‘head toward communism like it is another cruise port, so many symbols of Americana descending on a rotting island stuck in the 1950s, and it doesn’t feel quite right back in Miami, like watching a funeral morph into a party.’ He goes on to describe how his mother endured arbitrary house raids by armed Castro loyalists, the political detention of her brother, the constant possibility of his execution by firing squad without trial, her own escape from the island, and finally the subsequent murder of her own mother by the government in retaliation. This is still the reality for the Cuban people, with the exception of government officials and their favorites. It is a reality which has just received the tacit blessing of the so-called leader of the Free World. Certainly, things may eventually change in Cuba and liberalization may overcome the Orwellian, totalitarian regime that has a monopoly on military power and economic resources. How many Cubans will lose their freedom or their lives before that happens? How many Cuban lives would it take to make the US government rethink their endorsement of a bloody tyrant?