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