Other Reactions to Fidel Castro’s Commentary on President Obama’s Visit 

Fidel’s commentary on President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, which was discussed in an earlier post, has received a lot of coverage in the international press, but most articles merely summarize what Fidel said with little analysis. Here are substantive reactions to Fidel’s commentary.

Sebastian Arcos’ Reaction

The Wall Street Journal offered an analysis by Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who said Fidel is “essentially an old man ranting in the background, [his essay is} rambling, it’s incoherent. It’s definitely not on topic.” This is consistent to my reaction as stated in the prior post.[1]

Yoani Sanchez’s Reactions

My prior post also expressed disagreement with Fidel’s assertion that Cuba could produce all the food it needed. According to the Wall Street Journal, this assertion also was challenged by Yoani Sanchez, a dissident Cuban blogger, She points out that cash-strapped Cuba spends nearly $2 billion a year importing 80% of the food that its 11 million residents consume. Yoani also reported that Mr. Obama’s speech has been distributed extensively on the island, with high-resolution videos of the address on computer memory drives.

Christopher Sabatini’s Reactions

Another point of disagreement with Fidel, as noted in the prior post, was regarding his contention that the Cuban Revolution had swept away racial discrimination.

Also disagreeing with this Fidel contention is Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and social inclusion. He says that Cuba’s purported racial utopia is a myth. Sabatini contends that according to a 2011 study “’black and mixed populations, on average, are concentrated in the worst housing conditions’ and tend to work in lower-paying, manual-labor jobs.” Moreover, racial “structural disparities have increased” with “blacks and mestizos occupy[ing] only 5 percent of the lucrative higher-end jobs (managers and technicians) in the tourism industry but are heavily represented in low-level jobs.” Yet another index of racial disparities was foreign remittances to Cubans “overwhelmingly go[ing] . . . to its non-black population.”[2]

Another myth about Cuba, says Sabatini, is the alleged greatness of the Cuban health system. Although there have been health-care advances in Cuba with Cuban life-expectancy the second-highest in Latin America at 79.1 years and although Cuba justifiably is proud of its medical education and sending its physicians to other countries, “advanced health care is flagging” in Cuba with “the health system used by average Cubans in crisis” and hospitals “generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.”

I am not a physician and do not have personal knowledge on this issue, but on my first visit to Cuba in 2002 I visited a polyclinic in the city of Matanzas and observed poor, unsanitary conditions, and on every mission trip to Cuba members of my church always take large supplies of over-the-counter medicines that the church then dispenses as a de facto pharmacy. In addition, an Ecuadorian ophthalmologist and a retired emergency room physician have told me that they have had to solve medical problems created by poor care from visiting Cuban medical personnel, but I do not know if these are isolated or widespread instances.

 White House Reactions

On March 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made extensive comments about Fidel’s commentary and the President’s visit to Cuba. The Secretary said, “the fact that [Fidel Castro] . . . felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the President’s visit . . . is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama’s visit to Cuba.  We obviously were quite pleased with the reception that President Obama received from the Cuban people.  [We are] . . . also pleased with the kind of conversations that President Obama was able to have with other Cuban government officials.  There was an opportunity for us to discuss what additional steps can be taken to normalize relations between our two countries.”[3]

Earnest continued, “The President made clear time and time again, both in private meetings with President [Raúl] Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock-solid, and that’s not going to change.  And we’re going to continue to be leading advocates — and President Obama is going to continue to be a leading advocate — for universal human rights, not just in the Western Hemisphere but around the world.”

“And the kind of engagement that President Obama was able to pursue in the context of his visit is the kind of engagement that would not have been possible had he not made the trip.  The President was able to go to Cuba and urge President [Raúl] Castro in person about the importance of human rights.  The President was able to stand before a news conference, the assembled global media, and make a forceful case for the Cuban government to better protect universal human rights.  That also created a venue where a couple of your colleagues were able to ask President [Raúl] Castro about this issue directly.

That’s the kind of thing that’s never happened before.  And there’s no denying that creates some additional pressure on the Cuban government.  And again, the fact that the former President [Fidel Castro] felt compelled to respond I think is an indication that the trip had its intended effect.“

Ernest also said the U.S. was “ constantly in a position to be urging the government of Cuba to do a better job of protecting the universal human rights of their people, but we’re also making a specific push to look out for those that we know are being targeted because of their political views.  So that is to say our call for greater respect for human rights on the island of Cuba is both a generalized call about respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people, but it’s also a specific call about making sure that individuals who have been victimized or targeted or rounded up or tortured because of their political views are freed.”

“Those efforts are going to continue.  And importantly, the United States and our government is not the only one encouraging Cuba to take these important steps.”

“One of the benefits of this policy change that the President has announced is that, for a long time, our policy toward Cuba served as an impediment to our relations with other countries throughout the hemisphere.  And for a long time, we saw countries in the Western Hemisphere who were more focused on the U.S. policy toward Cuba than they were on the policy of the Cuban government toward its own people.  Now that impediment has been removed, and now we are seeing greater scrutiny applied toward the Cuban government and, frankly, tougher questions being raised about the way that the Cuban government treats its own people.  That’s a helpful thing.  And that added pressure will only be a good thing for the Cuban people in the long run.”

“The President did have an opportunity in the course of his conversations to make clear that the kind of work that’s currently being done in law enforcement channels to try to coordinate the return of some of these fugitives is a priority of his.  And he made that clear at the highest levels of the Cuban government.  And we’re going to continue to push for those kinds of issues to be resolved because they’re a genuine irritant in our relationship.”

In “every meeting that the President had with a Latin American leader in the first few years of his presidency, . . . that at some point, the discussion was actually consumed by the nonsensical U.S. policy toward Cuba.  And that was getting in the way of the ability of the United States to engage in the kinds of conversations that actually are helpful to our national security interests.  And in some cases, that actually has opened up and created space for the President to have a conversation with other world leaders about the human rights situation in Cuba, which, after all, is actually the whole point of this exercise and was the point of that policy.  And that’s why the President viewed it as a failed policy that had negative consequences for our relationship with other countries in Latin America — that too often they were talking about the embargo and not about the serious human rights situation inside of Cuba.”

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Reactions

On March 29 Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that ending the embargo (blockade) had to be the unilateral act of the U.S. It would not be the result of any negotiation with Cuba or any concessions by Cuba. He also said the U.S. still has the strategic objective of dominating Cuba economically and politically, but that Cuba would never give up the principles of the Revolution or its independence. This point was made, Rodriguez said, in the timely reflection of Fidel Castro with his extraordinary historical authority when he said Cuba does not need gifts from the U.S.[4]

Conclusion

In short, Fidel Castro overstates the case for the Cuban Revolution. Yes, it has made improvements in many aspects of Cuban life. But the Revolution did not create an utopia. Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. There is still room for improvement. The same is true of the U.S., as President Obama acknowledged in his speech to the Cuban people.

==========================================

[1] Vyas, Fidel Castro Lashes Out at Obama After Cuba Visit, W.S.J. (Mar. 28, 2016)

[2] Sabatini, 5 myths about Cuba, Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2016),

[3] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh earnest, 3/28/2016 Also on March 28, a U.S. Department of State spokesman said Fidel Castro “can speak for himself and his views of the troubled U.S.-Cuban history. . . . [The U.S.] believes “engagement’s the best way forward. . . . Nobody expected that the normalization process with Cuba was going to be linear or easy or quick. We all recognize there are still differences – human rights being one of them.”.

[4] Prensa Latina, End the blockade must be US unilateral act, Granma (Mar. 29, 2016).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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