Cuban Ladies in White Win Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize

At a May 17 New York City gala dinner, the Cato Institute awarded its $250,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Cuba’s Ladies in White.[1] This award, the political reaction to the award, Cato’s other positions on Cuba and Cato’s background raise interesting issues as discussed below.

The Award

The Institute’s announcement of this prize said the following:

  • “The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) have a simple message: The political prisoners of Cuba are our sons, our brothers, and our husbands. They must not be forgotten.”
  • “Every Sunday, the Ladies in White gather, or attempt to gather, for Mass at Saint Rita de Casia Church in Havana, followed by a procession down Fifth Avenue. They wear white to symbolize the peaceful nature of their protest, and each wears a photograph of a loved one who is in prison. For this the authorities have constantly harassed them and organized mob violence against them.”
  • “The movement began on March 18, 2003, when journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez was arrested in his home in Havana and sentenced to 20 years in prison for criticizing the regime of Fidel Castro. His case drew worldwide attention, with Amnesty International calling him a prisoner of conscience and demanding his release. Around 75 others were arrested at the same time, in an incident that has been called the Black Spring. All have since left prison, though not unconditionally, with the majority having had to leave Cuba. Since that time, sporadic arrests of journalists, lawyers, and other intellectuals have continued in Cuba, belying the myth that with normalized relations, Cuba’s human rights record would improve. If anything, it has deteriorated.”
  • “Two weeks after Maseda was arrested, his wife Laura Pollán Toledo brought together a group of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the imprisoned to pray for their loved ones. They have continued to gather each Sunday, and the movement has since spread to other churches throughout Cuba. Although they are not a political party and do not have an overtly political program, they seek freedom of expression for all and the release of prisoners of conscience in Cuba. In recognition of their courage, the Ladies in White were the 2005 recipients of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament. The Cuban government prohibited them from attending the award ceremony in Strasbourg, France.”
  • “In 2015 Berta Soler, one of the leaders of the group, told the U.S. Senate, “Our aspirations are legitimate…. Our demands are quite concrete: freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of all criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, multiparty elections. We believe these demands are just and valid. Even more importantly, for us they represent the most concrete exercise of politics, a step in the direction of democratic coexistence. Cuba will change when the laws that enable and protect the criminal behavior of the forces of repression and corrupt elements that sustain the regime change.”
  • “As the first step, the Ladies in White demand the release of all political prisoners. The outlook for many of the prisoners is grim; prison conditions are deplorable, visits are rare, and even their mail is intercepted by the authorities. And the Ladies themselves have faced increasing police harassment and arrest in recent years, as the Cuban government tries to hide-but not correct-its habit of quashing dissent. Laura Pollán died in 2011 under gravely suspicious circumstances. But the movement she founded continues: The Ladies in White will meet, pray, and bear witness every Sunday until Cuba’s political prisoners are freed.”

The keynote speaker at the gala dinner was Brazilian Judge, Sergio Moro, who become a household name in his country thanks to Operation Car Wash, the massive scandal in which he has sent some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians and business elite to jail for corruption.

U.S. Political Reaction to the Award[2]

Just before Cato’s dinner, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley met with representatives of Cuba’s Ladies in White at the U.N. and with a photo tweeted, “Congratulations to the Ladies in White for your Milton Friedman award for advancing liberty. The US stands behind you in your fight against the Cuban government for the rights of its people.” Here is that photo of Ambassador Haley with members of the group.

The prior day four U.S. Senators– Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), Bill Nelson (Dem., FL), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Ted Cruz (Rep., TX)– introduced a resolution congratulating the Ladies in White on receiving the prestigious award, expressing solidarity with the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and calling on the Cuban regime to allow members of Las Damas de Blanco to travel freely both domestically and internationally. The press release continued, “the dissident group, which routinely faces brutal beatings and imprisonment from the Cuban regime, peacefully gathers and marches in white clothes every Sunday in Havana carrying a picture of their loved ones in one hand and a white gladiolus in the other.”

Subsequent Incidents Involving the Ladies in White[3]

On Sunday, May 20, the Ladies in White who were on the street were arrested and soon thereafter released except for Marieta Martinez. And the next Tuesday, May 22, their leader, Berta Soler, was arrested outside the group’s Havana headquarters.  Another member, Cecilia Guerra, was also arrested outside the headquarters and immediately released. In addition, two others, Maria Carolina Labrada and Deysi Artiless,  were arrested at their homes.

Cato Institute’s Other Positions on Cuba[4]

Cato Institute’s Handbook for Policymakers, 8th Edition (2017), surprisingly for this reader, recommended repeal of two key statutes authorizing the embargo– the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 and the Torricelli Act of 1992–and ending “all remaining sanctions that prevent U.S. companies from trading and investing in Cuba.” This, it said, would leave the Cold War in the past, and eliminate unintended consequences of a flawed policy. In short, it said, “U.S. policy toward Cuba should focus on national security interests, not on transforming Cuban society or micromanaging the affairs of a transitional government.”

These positions were reiterated in a June 2017 article by a Cato senior fellow, just after President Trump in his Miami speech announced cutbacks in policies for U.S. travel to the island. The article asserted, “The presidential campaign is over. President Trump should do what is best for both the American and Cuban people, and end economic restrictions on the island. Freedom eventually will come to Cuba. Flooding the island with foreign people and money would make that day arrive sooner.”

Cato Institute Background[5]

The Cato Institute describes itself as “a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues. It accepts no government funding. Instead, it receives approximately 80 percent of its funding through tax-deductible contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations, and the sale of books and publications.”

Founded in 1974 in Wichita, Kansas as the Charles Koch Foundation by Charles Koch, who is one of the wealthiest persons in the world and who with his brother David runs Koch Industries that supports many so-called conservative causes. In 1976 the Foundation moved to Washington, D.C. and adopted its current name in recognition of Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th- century England that presented a vision of society free from excessive government power. Cato says “those essays inspired the architects of the American Revolution. And the simple, timeless principles of that revolution — individual liberty, limited government, and free markets — turn out to be even more powerful in today’s world of global markets and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined. Social and economic freedom is not just the best policy for a free people, it is the indispensable framework for the future.”

The current 19 members of Cato’s Board are the following:

John A. Allison, Former President & CEO, Cato Institute; Retired Chairman & CEO, BB&T (the 10th-largest U.S. financial services holding company);

Carl Barney, Chairman, Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Scientologist and very wealthy operator of for-profit colleges;

Baron Bond, Executive Vice President, The Foundation Group LLC, a real estate management, investment, and development company whose biography appears on the website for the Atlas Society named after Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged;”

Rebecca Dunn, Trustee, DUNN Foundation, which says it “believes that liberty and opportunity should be enjoyed by the people of this Nation, envisions a world where the use of force by coercive public or private institutions no longer threatens our freedoms and celebrates entrepreneurial innovations that further these purposes;”

Robert Gelfond, wealthy CEO and Founder, Macro Quantitative Strategies (MQS);

Peter N. Goettler, President & CEO, Cato Institute, former officer of Barclays Capital and on board of Atlas Network and advocate of libertarian organizations in several foreign countries;

David C. Humphreys, President & CEO, TAMKO Building Products, Inc. and a “massive” Republican donor;

James M. Kilts, wealthy Partner, Centerview Capital Holdings, an investment banking firm, and former CEO, The Gillette Company;

James M. Lapeyre, Jr., President, Laitram, LLC, a diversified global manufacturer and officer of The Atlas Society;

Ken Levy, Levy Family Fund and businessman;

Robert A. Levy, Chairman, Cato Institute, founder of a major provider of investment information and software and successful attorney in Supreme Court ban on Washington, D.C. gun ban;

Preston Marshall, President/CEO, Rusk Capital Management and friend of the Koch brothers;

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, President and CEO, MediaSpeak Strategies, staffer on 2008 McCain/Palin campaign and former director of the Washington, D.C. office of Koch Industries;

Lewis E. Randall, Former Director, E*Trade Financial, a financial services company;

Howard S. Rich, real estate investor and Chairman, U.S.Term Limits and other libertarian-oriented political initiatives;

Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Co., Inc., an investment advisory firm;

Nestor R. Weigand, Jr., Chairman and CEO, JP Weigand & Sons, Inc., a full-service real estate firm;

Jeffrey S. Yass, Managing Director, Susquehanna International Group, LLP, a global trading and technology firm;

Fred Young, Former Owner, Young Radiator Company, and major supporter of conservative groups and candidates.

The members of the International Selection Committee for the 2018 Prize were Leszek Balcerowicz, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Poland; Janice Rogers Brown, Former Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Vicente Fox. Former President, Mexico; Sloane Frost, Chairwoman, Board of Directors, Students for Liberty; Peter N. Goettler, President and CEO, Cato Institute; Herman Mashaba. Executive Mayor, Johannesburg, South Africa; Harvey Silverglate, Co-founder, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Company Inc.; and Linda Whetstone, Chair, Atlas Network.

 Conclusion

The preceding account of the history of the Ladies in White tells an impressive story of alleged Cuban suppression of dissent, free speech and assembly and freedom of religion. The Cuban government, however, disagrees and is believed to assert that these women are not religious activists and dissenters, but trouble-makers for hire by the CIA or U.S. Agency for International Development or private groups in the U.S.

Which account is true? We need to hear more from the Cubans and U.S. journalists or private investigators who have investigated the activities of the Ladies in White.

The creation of the Cato Institute (f/k/a Charles Koch Foundation) by Charles Koch and the changing of its name perhaps to conceal or minimize its Koch origins raise questions about its objectivity and fairness.

Cato’s 19-member Board has 17 white, very successful and wealthy men and two white women who apparently are married to very successful and wealthy white men. This too raises questions about the board’s objectivity and fairness.

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[1] Cato Institute, The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty: Las Damas de Blanco, Winner of the 2018 Milton Friedman Prize; Whitefield, Cuba’s Ladies in White win $250,000 prize for advancing liberty, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[2] U.S. Miss. to UN, Tweet: Congratulations to the Ladies in White (May 17, 2018); Press Release, Rubio, Menendez, Nelson, Cruz Introduce Resolution Honoring ladies in White for Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty (May 16, 2018).

[3] The regime stops Berta Soler and deploys operations in the homes of other Ladies in White, Diario de Cuba (May 22, 2018).

[4] Cato Institute, CATO Handbook for Policymakers—Relations with Cuba,  8th Edition (2017); Bandow, Trump Panders on Cuba, Preferring Cold War over Progress, Cato Inst. (June 23, 2017).

[5]  Cato Institute, About Cato; Cato Institute, Wikipedia.

Cuba’ Prepares for Pope Francis Visit with Conflicting Actions Regarding Prisoners

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The Cuban government has made plans to celebrate Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba, September 19-22.[1] The government also has taken conflicting actions regarding prisoners. On September 11 the Cuban government announced that it would release 3,522 prisoners.[2] Two days later, on September 13, it detained about 50 predominantly Roman Catholic citizens whom the government regards as dissidents.[3]

Cuba’s Plans To Celebrate the Pope’s Visit

In anticipation of the visit, Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, published a lengthy and extraordinary article about the role of religion in Cuba. It started with the recognition that the visit will be “in the year of the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Holy See, and the 100th anniversary of the request by the veterans of the Cuban War of Independence for Our Lady of Charity to be declared Patron Saint of Cuba,”

“As Cubans we are conscious, whether religious or not, of the fact that the Pope will be welcomed by a combative, noble and united people, accustomed to rising above difficulties and walking tall, despite having been subjected to a brutal economic, commercial and financial blockade for over five decades, and having confronted the limitations resulting from this without neglecting to defend our culture, identity and roots, while safeguarding the education of our children.”

The Pope “will find a country that learns every day how to move forward with a progressive and constantly updated social project; a society that is built on the basis of the struggle for a better world; and whose history includes [sympathetic priests] . . . the synthesis of Cuban ethics, and for whom love of their homeland and of God were two consubstantial passions.”

The Pope also “will find a nation of cultural and religious multiplicity, the product of a process of transculturation, . . . essential to an understanding of the history of the nation and of Latin America. A mix of beliefs and manifestations marks the country’s religious makeup, described by the researcher as complex, heterogeneous and contradictory, due to its origins, ideas and representations and ways of organizing and expressing itself through rituals, etc.”

This diversity has “ the Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant and Orthodox churches coexist[ing with] Judaism, spiritualism, Afro-Cuban religions, Islam and Buddhism.” This diversity is protected by Article 8 of the Cuban Constitution, which states:

  • “The State recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious freedom. In the Republic of Cuba, religious institutions are separate from the State. The different creeds and religions enjoy equal consideration.”

Article 55 of the Constitution also states: “The State, which recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, simultaneously recognizes, respects, and guarantees the freedom of every citizen to change religious creeds, or not to have any; and to profess the religious worship of their choice, with respect for the law. The law regulates the State’s relations with religious institutions.”

These principles have also been reflected in the thoughts and actions of . . . Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz. [He] met with Chilean priests in 1971 and expressed the need to “unite Christians and revolutionaries” in the struggle for freedom. Later, when visiting Jamaica in 1977, this time addressing a predominantly Protestant audience, he returned to the theme of the “strategic alliance” that should exist between religion and socialism.”

“Years later, as evidence of the maturity of the Cuban revolutionary process and in line with the wishes of both parties, meetings between the Comandante and evangelical and protestant leaders in Cuba began to take place – a tradition maintained today by the highest authorities of the government – until, in 1991, at the Fourth [Communist] Party Congress, the wish of those believers eager to join the ranks of the organization was crystallized, an intention reiterated in January 2012 at the First National Conference of the [Communist] Party.”

“There are currently three Protestant pastors, a Presbyterian, a Baptist and an Episcopalian in the Cuban parliament, elected by popular vote; and in the same way members of the Catholic Church and other denominations and religious manifestations form part of the organs of state power and political and mass organizations.”

“The activities undertaken by religious institutions in cooperating with the state in the management of hospitals and nursing homes are examples of their connection with the most pressing problems of society, particularly related to the family and the aging population. These issues have featured on the agenda of recent meetings held between representatives of the institutions and fraternal associations, and the country’s leadership.”

“The visits of Popes John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012, reflected the similarities between the Cuban social project and Christian sentiments, in the effort to eliminate poverty and exclusion, in praising the role of the family, in defense of peace and against war, and in the preservation of the human species. In addition, they demonstrated the deeply humanistic culture of an entire people.”

Benedict XVI said in his farewell address in Cuba: “I hold deep in my heart all the Cuban people, each and every one. You have surrounded me with prayer and affection, offered me cordial hospitality and shared with me your profound and rightful aspirations.”

John Paul II expressed, “I am grateful to you for your cordial hospitality, an authentic expression of the Cuban soul, and above all for being able to share with you intense moments of prayer and reflection.”

“Other religious figures, including leaders of the Latin American Council of Churches, the Latin American Episcopal Council and the Caribbean Conference of Churches, general secretaries and presidents of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, cardinals and other prelates of the Holy See, pastors, priests, rabbis, Yoruba leaders, Muslims, Buddhists and scholars, have also visited our country.”

“In 2011, the Cuban Interfaith Platform, which includes representatives of all religious manifestations, was created. Undoubtedly, of special significance was its struggle for the return of the Cuban Five imprisoned in the United States, and in establishing a bridge between them and their families. The Council of Churches of Cuba was also a leading protagonist in the return home of Elián González and in confronting the blockade, another of the battles of our people for justice.

“Pope Francis will encounter these and other realities . . . [in Cuba. We] will welcome him on behalf of all Cuba. Among the gathered there may be those who don’t share the same religious beliefs, even those who are there motivated simply by that feeling of warmth and hospitality so inherent to Cubans.

But we are sure that [the Pope] will leave this land taking with him the imprint of intense days shared with a united and respectful people, true to its ancestors and patriotic sentiment; a nation with a deep commitment to justice and freedom.”

The Release of Prisoners

On September 11 the government announced that it would release 3,522 prisoners, including women, inmates younger than 20 with no prior offenses, those older than 60, prisoners with illnesses, some foreigners whose countries have agreed to repatriate them and others whose terms are coming to an end. Excluded from the release will be those charged with serious crimes like murder or child sexual abuse or crimes against national security.

“It’s a gift to Pope Francis— a grand gesture,” said Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks rights in Cuba.

Sebastián A. Arcos, a former political prisoner in Cuba and now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, said the mass release on the cusp of the Pope’s visit was a cynical and opportunistic effort to demonstrate a more tolerant government. “It’s makeup,” he said.

Mr. Arcos added that Cuba was able to make such a mass release largely because so many people were jailed for doing things that would not be illegal in any other country. “The reality is that Cuban prisons are overpopulated, and they have been for many years, because we are talking about a police state, a repressive police state, where almost anything is a crime,” he said. “Before these economic reforms were implemented, selling peanuts on the corner in Havana was a crime.”\

The Detention of Dissidents

 On Sunday, September 13, Cuban police detained about 50 people when a predominantly Roman Catholic dissident group led a march in Havana. In their weekly rally following mass at Havana’s Santa Rita Catholic Church, about 40 of the women, accompanied by about a dozen male supporters, marched outside their authorized route and down a side street where they were set upon by some 200 government supporters and police. Female police pushed, pulled and carried the women onto buses as some sat down in an attempt to resist. The men were handcuffed and shoved into police cars and vans.

Such detentions have become common following regular Sunday marches by the Ladies in White, a group that has criticized the Roman Catholic Church and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega for failing to advocate on its behalf with the Cuban government.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler told Reuters the women planned to attend masses that Pope Francis will lead in Havana and Holguin while in Cuba. “I would discuss with the pope the need to stop police violence against those who exercise their freedom to demonstrate in public,” Soler said.

Cuba’s government considers the dissidents to be provocateurs who are financed by anti-communist groups in the U.S. as part of an effort to destabilize the government in Havana.

Among those detained for about an hour on Sunday was Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s largest dissident organization. “The Church should be concerned about this or any time human rights are involved,” Ferrer said. “It is their duty.”

Conclusion

Francis’ visit to Cuba and then to the U.S. and what he has to say to the people and leaders of the two countries will be interesting and most challenging in light of his having played a significant role in helping the two countries to reach their historic decision last December to pursue normalization of relations. These future remarks undoubtedly were previewed in his recent critique of capitalism in an encyclical about environmental degradation and climate change. This theme also was prominent in remarks in his recent trips to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. He called the “unfettered pursuit of money” the “dung of the devil” and urged the poor and disenfranchised to rise up against “new colonialism,” including corporations, loan agencies, free trade treaties, austerity measures, and “the monopolizing of the communications media.”

On the other hand, as Nick Miroff in a Washington Post article pointed out, In a 1998 book about Pope John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, Francis, then still a high official of the church in Argentina, said that “socialism was an ‘anthropological misreading’ of human nature that fails to address man’s spiritual needs, mistakenly believing that the state is the solution to all of society’s problems. He also said, “Cuba and other nations need to transform some of their institutions and especially their policies, substituting corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian governments for democratic and participatory ones. The free participation of citizens in public life, the guarantee of civil and human rights, are an imperative condition for the full human development of all people.”

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[1] Guerrero, Cuba ready to welcome Pope Francis, Granma (Sept. 10, 2015)

[2] Ahmed & Robles, Cuba to Release 3,522 Prisoners Before Pope Francis’ Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2015); Miroff, Cuba pardons more than 3,500 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis visit, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2015); Council of State agrees to pardon 3,522 prisoners, Granma (Sept. 11, 2015).

[3] Reuters, Cuba Detains Dissidents Ahead of Pope Francis Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2015).

Cuba’s Reactions to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Determining the overall reactions of Cubans to the December 17th announcement of their country’s embarking on a path of reconciliation with the U.S. is difficult for anyone, much less a non-Cuban living in Minnesota. Nevertheless, I will attempt to do so based upon generally available information filtered through my having been to Cuba on three church mission trips over the past 12 years, my listening to others from my church who have been on other such trips, my talking with Cubans on the island and in the U.S. and following carefully the news on this subject during these years. My analysis also endeavors to put myself in the shoes of Cubans in this historical moment.

This analysis focuses first on the actions of the leaders of the Cuban government and  then on the reactions of the Cuban people.

The Cuban Government

First, the Cuban government over 18 months conducted secret negotiations with the U.S. government to achieve the breakthrough on December 17th when President Raûl Castro announced this important development to the Cuban people.

At that time Castro said, “We need to learn to live together in a civilized way, with our differences,” He also exulted in the release of the three Cuban agents from U.S. prison, saying it was  a cause of “enormous joy for their families and all of our people.” He praised President Obama with these words””This decision by President Obama deserves respect and recognition by our people.”

Subsequently President Raûl Castro has made other statements reiterating his government’s commitment to the process of reconciliation while also emphasizing some of the difficulties in achieving complete normalization.

  • In his December 20th speech to Cuba’s National Assembly, President Castro said, “The Cuban people are grateful [for Mr. Obama’s decision] to remove the obstacles to our relations.” He also stated, “”In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours.”
  • At the January 28th CELAC conference in Costa Rica, President Castro stated, “The reestablishment of diplomatic relations is the beginning of a process of . . . normalization of  bilateral relations, but this will not be possible as long as the [U.S. embargo or] blockade exists, or as long as the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is not returned, or radio and television broadcasts which violate international norms continue, or just compensation is not provided our people for the human and economic damage that they have suffered.” In essence, he said, “Cuba and the United States must learn the art of civilized co-existence, based on respect for the differences which exist between both governments and cooperation on issues of common interest. . . . [In doing so Cuba will not ] renounce its ideals of independence and social justice, or abandon a single one of our principles, nor cede a millimeter in the defense of our national sovereignty.” Raul Castro continued, “If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States makes no sense.”

Raúl’s brother, Fidel Castro, belatedly voiced his guarded approval. On January 27th, Fidel said,“I do not trust the politics of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this is not, in any way, a rejection of a peaceful solution to conflicts. Any peaceful or negotiated solution to the problems between the United States and the peoples or any people of Latin America that doesn’t imply force or the use of force should be treated in accordance with international norms and principles. We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the people of the world, including with our political adversaries.” His brother, Fidel said, had “taken the relevant steps in line with the prerogatives and authorities awarded to him by the National Assembly and the Cuban Communist Party.”

Moreover, the Cuban government has fulfilled its obligations under the accord with the U.S. to release from its jails and prisons Alan Gross, a U.S. spy and 53 Cuban dissidents.

In addition, Cuba hosted a visit of a delegation of U.S. Senators and Representatives led by Senator Leahy and the January 21-22 diplomatic conference in Havana to discuss additional steps of normalization. Although no significant agreements were reached on specific issues, both governments spoke of the spirit of respect and cooperation that was present in those sessions. The diplomatic conference was discussed in posts before and after the sessions.

The day before this conference, a senior official from Cuba’s foreign ministry told reporters that it was “unfair” to keep Cuba on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and that Cuba “cannot conceive of re-establishing diplomatic relations” while Cuba remains on that list.”

After the conference, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, said, “One can’t think that in order to improve and normalize relations with the U.S., Cuba has to give up the principles it believes in. Changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable.” She also objected to allowing U.S. diplomats on the island to have liberty to go anywhere until they conducted themselves with total respect for Cuban laws. The last point was in response to the U.S. insistence that its diplomats in Havana have the unrestricted ability to travel within the country and to meet with whomever it wants, including Cuban dissidents. Vidal re-emphasized this position in an extensive February 2nd interview in Granma, Cuba’s only newspaper. 

The Cuban People [2]

As there are no national public opinion polls in Cuba, assessing such opinion relies on a melange of sources.

Immediately after the December 17th announcement of the detente, Granma reported that the Cuban people were “overjoyed to the two great events of the day, year and century: the return to the country of three Cuban heroes who were previously incarcerated in U.S. prisons, and the announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.”

The day after the announcement a Western journalist reported that “many Cubans expressed hope . . .  that it will mean greater access to jobs and the creature comforts taken for granted elsewhere, and lift a struggling socialist economy where staples like meat, cooking oil and toilet paper are often hard to come by. That yearning, however, was tempered with anxiety. Some fear a cultural onslaught, or that crime and drugs, both rare in Cuba, will become common along with visitors from the United States. There is also concern that the country will become just another Caribbean destination.”

Another western journalist, William Neuman, this last Christmas made a 17-hour car trip around the island and observed that in his “conversations with Cubans about the lifting of parts of the American embargo and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, what they talked about most was that they hoped it would breathe life into the economy and eventually lead to a better standard of living.”

In early January an Associated Press journalist interviewed 10 of the 53 Cuban dissidents who were released from jail or prison by the Cuban government as part of the December 17th announcement, and eight of them “expressed confidence the decrease in tensions with the U.S. will improve life in Cuba and make their activism easier. Only one had a negative view of the deal.”

More recently, on January 23rd in Havana U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson hosted a meeting in Havana of certain Cuban dissidents, as discussed in a prior post. Some of those in attendance were opposed to the detente while others supported it. (The Cuban government was very unhappy over this meeting.)

On February 3rd a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing about the detente. Four of the witnesses were the following Cuban dissidents. 

  • Berta Soler, President of Cuban Ladies in White, testified about the continued arrests and harassment of dissidents by the Cuban government.
  • Mrs. Miriam Levia, a human rights advocate and independent journalist, testified, “While many dissidents and opponents support the new approach of the American Administration in the relations with the Cuban government, others do not. Nevertheless, the objective is the same: defense of human rights, democratic values, and friendship and assistance to the Cuban people. Likewise in the opposition and dissidence, we all seek the wellbeing and progress of the Cuban people and our country.” She added, “Reestablishing relations will grant a better environment for the American diplomats in Cuba, their contacts with the Cuban population and the civil society, and their ability to access a direct channel to the national officials, among other issues. Normalizing the 56 years long estrangement will take a long time. But there is now a unique opportunity to assist the Cuban people and it must not be wasted. . . .The American policy towards the Cuban government has disserved it for 56 years, so it must be changed. The embargo must be lifted for the benefit of our peoples and nations.”
  • Manuel Cuesta Morúa, representing the Progressive Arc and Coordinator of New Country, testified, “Do not believe that the change in U.S. policy will bring us freedom, which would be the best outcome. The freedom of Cuba is exclusively a matter for Cubans. But believe me, that new policy will give us better options for us to obtain it by ourselves.”
  • Rosa Maria Paya, a member of Christian Liberation Movement and Daughter of Slain Dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardińas, testified,  ““Your government must move forward and extend a hand to the people and government of Cuba, but with the request that the hands of Cuban citizens not be tied. Otherwise, the opening will only be for the Cuban government, and will be another episode of an international spectacle full of hypocrisy. A spectacle that reinforces oppression, and plunges the Cuban people deeper into the lie and total defenselessness, seriously damaging the desire of Cubans for the inevitable changes to be achieved peacefully. The pursuit of friendship between the United States of America and Cuba is inseparable from the pursuit of liberty. We want to be free and be friends.” God bless and protect our peoples.”

This January David Adams of Reuters reported that “most Cubans firmly oppose U.S. policies and the long economic embargo . . .  but admire U.S. culture. Many have relatives living in the United States, Cuban teenagers listen more to rap and hip hop than to home-grown son and salsa, and baseball is the country’s most popular sport.”  Adams cites three examples:

  • Miguel Barnet, a poet and anthropologist and a member of Cuba’s powerful Council of State,  “fondly recalls his teenage years in the 1950s, attending one of Havana’s elite private schools, singing in the Episcopal church choir and performing in American musicals.‘I love North American culture, I was shaped by it.’”
  • The official historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal, added, “We never burned an American flag in Cuba. We Cubans don’t have our hands soaked in American blood. There is no anti-American hatred here.”
  • Camilo Martinez, the operator of a small Havana bed and breakfast, said, “Everyone wants to see what the future will bring. They can taste the consumer benefits in the future. No one can stop this. Everyone wants to work with people in the United States, we all have friends and relatives there …. Everyone can see the future: McDonald’s, Home Depot, Walmart.”

A first-time visitor to Cuba reported in January  that If you ask [Cubans] about politics, the response often starts with a deep breath or shrug. Cubans are mostly interested in economic improvement, one invariably hears, and an intangible ‘normal’ in their lives.”

Another measure of the Cuban people’s desperate economic conditions and their reactions to the detente was a post-December 17th surge in the number of U.S. Coast Guard interdictions of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. illegally in rafts. They apparently were motivated in part by fear that the detente would mean an end to the U.S. “wet foot/dry foot” immigration policy allowing Cubans who reached U.S. soil to remain in the country.

Conclusion

The Cuban government clearly has concluded that an accord with the U.S. was in Cuba’s national interest. It potentially reduces, if not eliminates, a feared hostile U.S. intervention. It should lead to increased U.S. investment in Cuba and increased U.S. tourism, all benefiting the Cuban economy and the economic lives of many of its citizens. Such positive impacts will be enhanced by the anticipated abolition of the U.S. embargo or blockade of the island. These considerations for Cuba presumably were enhanced by the increasing economic troubles, if not possible  implosion, of Venezuela, which has been a major Cuban benefactor.

On the other hand, the Cuban government has recognized, as has the U.S., that there are many difficult problems that have accumulated over the last 50-plus years that must be addressed, but will not be easy to resolve.

I concur in the observations of the previously mentioned journalists that most Cubans have warm feelings toward the American people and culture and are hopeful that the accord will result in improvements in their daily lives.

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[1] Reuters, Cuba’s Castro Hails New Era of Living Together with U.S., N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Cave, Raúl Castro Thanks U.S., but Reaffirms Communist Rule in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014);  Reuters, Cuba Says U.S.Must Respect Its Communist System, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014); Assoc. Press, Cuba Digs in Heels on Concessions as Part of Better US Ties, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2015); Burnett, Fidel Castro Shares Views on Warming of Relations, N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2015); President Raúl Castro speaks to third CELAC Summit in Costa Rica, Granma (Jan. 29, 2015); Assoc. Press, Raul Castro: US Must Return Guantanamo for Normal Relations, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2015); Reuters, Raul Castro Warns U.S. Against Meddling in Cuba’s Affairs, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2015), Escobar, The blockade has not ended, Granma (Feb. 2, 2015) (extensive interview of Josefina Vidal); Reuters, Cuba Sounds Warning Ahead of Next Round of U.S. Talks, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2015); Reuters, Exclusive–U.S. Pressing Cuba to Restore Diplomatic Ties before April: Officials, N.Y.Times (Feb. 6, 2015).

[2] Assoc. Press, Hope and Some Fear in Cuba Amid Thaw with US, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Hernandez, Cuba overjoyed, Granma (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, Coast Guard Reports Surge in Cubans Trying to Reach Florida, N.Y. Times (Jan. 5, 2015); Neuman, Cuban Road Trip: Reporter’s Notebook, N. Y. Times (Jan. 7, 2015); Assoc. Press, Freed Cuban Dissidents Praise Detente, Pledge Push for Change, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2015); Adams, Cubans Look Fondly to U.S. as Talks to Resume Relations Start, N.Y. Times (Jan.21, 2015); Assoc. Press, For First-Time Visitor, Havana Is Charming-And Complicated, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2015); DeYoung, As normalization talks begin, Cubans begin anticipating challenges to come, Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2015); Miroff, Fear of immigration policy change triggers new wave of Cuban migrants, Wash. Post (Jan. 27, 2015); U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Hearing: Understanding the Impact of U.S. Policy changes on Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba (Feb. 3, 2015).

Cuba’s Unhappiness with U.S. Meeting with Cuban Dissidents

On Friday, January 23rd (the day after the conclusion of the two-day diplomatic meeting), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson hosted a breakfast meeting with seven Cuban dissidents at the Havana official residence of the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section. She said it was an “opportunity to discuss their perspectives, hear their differences, sometimes, or their support for the new policy. It’s very important to hear their perspective and see how we can help in the future.”[1]

One of the breakfast guests was Antonio Rodiles, founder of the activist group Estado de SATS, who said, “The breakfast was cordial, but we said we still have doubts about the next steps.” He and others thought that Cuban concessions on human rights and free expression should have been a pre-condition of any new U.S. policy and that the Cuban diaspora, primarily in the United States, should have been consulted. Some said the Obama administration, was effectively cherry-picking its preferred dissidents, focusing attention on those who supported Obama’s outreach.

Another guest, Jose Daniel Ferrer, the head of the Cuban Patriotic Union, widely considered the largest and most active opposition group, with up to 5,000 open and underground members, observed, that the Cuban “people are still assimilating” the historic changes in the relations of the two countries and that some Cubans resent the eighteen-months of secret talks before announcing last month that they would restore diplomatic ties.

Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, commented, “We don’t expect miracles.” But he had a list of 24 prisoners who have been detained for between 12 to 24 years for politically associated crimes, and ongoing U.S. pressure on human rights issues was “essential, for as long as this system of political and economic repression continues.”

Miriam Leiva, the founder of the Ladies in White and a former Cuban diplomat and an independent journalist, said, “Jacobson showed the interest of the U.S. government in providing support for the Cuban opposition, respect for human rights in Cuba and the desire to advance the Cuban people. ”

Others at the breakfast included; Hector Maceda, president of the Cuban Liberal Democratic Party; activist and hunger striker Guillermo“Coco” Fariñas; and dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque.

At least one activist, Berta Soler of the Ladies in White group of political prisoner families, declined Jacobson’s breakfast invitation. Two who attended said they told Jacobson that they disapproved of the new U.S. policy.

After this meeting Jacobson met with influential Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Later that same day Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for the United States, said that U.S. support for dissidents is an “action that isn’t acceptable for Cuba, and they know it.” Moreover, she indicated that whether or not Cuba would accept the U.S. request to allow U.S. diplomats to go where they want was associated with “better behavior” by the U.S.

Vidal also noted, “This is exactly one of the differences we have with the U.S. government because for us, this is not just genuine, legitimate Cuban civil society.” This small group of people “do not represent Cuban society, don’t represent the interests of the Cuban people.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Klapper & Weissenstine, U.S., Cuba End Historic talks with More Questions than Answers, Assoc. Press (Jan. 23, 2015); DeYoung & Miroff, U.S. diplomats meet with Cuban dissidents in Havana in gesture of reassurance, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2015); Reuters, Senior U.S. Diplomat Ruffles Cuba by Meeting Dissidents, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2015); Maye, Cuban dissidents divided attend attend the meeting with Roberta Jacobson, El Pais (Jan. 23, 2015); Ayuso, The dialogue between the US and Cuba exposes the division of dissent, El Pais (Jan. 24, 2015).