Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Case for a Reboot of U.S. Cuba Policy

"They are selling a virtual reality as if it was real change, and that is fraud. It is outrageous." - Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Cuban opposition leader interviewed on October 3, 2011

 The New York Times has published an Editorial titled "Undoing All the Good Work on Cuba" that rehashes Obama Administration talking points that advance a specific policy agenda, although ignoring the current situation, changing policies over the past half century, security concerns, and how sanctions on the Castro regime have protected US taxpayers.

During the eight years of the Obama Administration the situation for Cuban opposition leaders became more precarious and this was demonstrated with the deaths of high profile figures that could have over seen a democratic transition such as Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Laura Inés Pollán Toledo.

The current situation

Levels of violence against dissidents worsened while the old totalitarian patterns of repression still endure.  Rising violent repression against political dissidents in Cuba, including crippling and disfiguring machete attacks, became a high profile regime tactic starting in 2013. The case of Sirley Avila Leon in May of 2015 is well documented, even if it is not widely well known because The New York Times did not find it "fit to print" but thankfully others have.

Machete attack victims 2013 - 2015

 There is no right to education in Cuba if you dissent from the official line. Fếlix Yuniel Llerena López, a 20 year-old religious freedom defender, was expelled from the Enrique José Varona Pedagogical University in Havana on May 8, 2017 following a visit to the United States. 18-year-old journalism student, Karla Pérez González, was expelled from Marta Abreu University of Santa Clara for “political reasons” on April 12, 2017 and her expulsion ratified three days later on April 15th. 24 year old David Mauri Cardoso was expelled from the University of Cienfuegos in February of 2017 after he honestly answered politically loaded questions in what was supposed to be a Spanish literature exam.

If you have a relative who is a dissident, although you are not, you can still be fired from your job. Professor Dalila Rodriguez from the University of Las Villas was expelled from her job on May 9, 2017 because her father, Leonardo Rodriguez is a dissident. 

Dissidents have been jailed and mistreated in psychiatric facilities in Cuba. The practice continues today with Daniel Llorente Miranda, the dissident who on May Day ran out in front of the parade with an American flag shouting out for a free Cuba, held in Mazorra.

There is no right to travel for Cuban nationals and dissenters are regularly denied exit and entry. Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, and Sayli Navarro were denied the right to travel by the Castro regime on June 4, 2017. 

Amnesty International has recognized Eduardo Cardet as a new Cuban prisoner of conscience and has an urgent action underway for his release.

What is taking place in Cuba is fake change. The regime is working to achieve regime succession and prevent a democratic transition in Cuba.

Policy changes over the past half century

The argument made by the Obama Administration and repeated by The New York Times that "hard-line sanctions-based approach was in place for more than 50 years after the 1959 revolution and never produced what anti-Castro activists hoped would be the result" is both a straw man argument and untrue.

The Castro regime beginning in 1959 sent armed expeditions to Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to overthrow their governments. The regime's destabilization policy led two thirds of the 21 states of Latin America voting to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States on February 14, 1963.   A cache of three tons of weapons was found on a Venezuelan beach in November 1963 that was to be used to disrupt the democratic elections there.

Due to the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle that consolidated Castro's rule and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that ruled out a direct U.S. invasion, economic sanctions were put in place not to eliminate the Castro regime but limit its ability to expand into the rest of the hemisphere and to force the Soviet Union to expend large sums in keeping the Castro regime afloat which may have contributed to the USSR's demise in 1991.  The embargo was not designed to overthrow the Castro regime but to contain its mission to destabilize other governments in the region.

President Carter ended Cuba travel embargo and began normalizing relations in 1977

On April 27, 1977 representatives of the Carter Administration and the Castro regime sat down and personally negotiated an international fishery agreement. This was the first time since 1958 that any officials of the United States government sat down with representatives of the Castro regime to formally negotiate an agreement. 

President Carter in an interview with Robert Fulghum on December 19, 1996 quoted on page 310 of the book Conversations with Carter said: "When I had only been in office two months in 1977, I opened up all travel for American citizens to go to Cuba and vice versa. And we opened up an entry section, which is just one step short of a full embassy in both Havana and Washington. And those offices, by the way, are still open."

Outcomes of Carter normalization with Castro regime

Robert A. Pastor, of The Carter Center in July 1992 in the report "The Carter Administration and Latin America: A Test of Principle" summed the outcome of the Carter policy on Cuba: "In November 1977 there were 400 Cuban military advisers in Ethiopia; by April 1978 there were 17,000 Cuban troops there serving under a Soviet general.

The Castro regime also played a crucial role in the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua while the Carter Administration imposed sanctions on the Somoza regime when it refused to pursue democratic reforms. According to Robert Pastor:  "Somoza pretended the sanctions had no effect on him. He doubled the size of the National Guard and evidently believed he was secure. However, by May 1979, with Cuban President Fidel Castro's help, the three Sandinista factions had united and established a secure and ample arms flow from Cuba through Panama and Costa Rica."

During the Mariel crisis of 1980, when over 125,000 Cubans sought to flee the island, the Cuban dictator sought to save face by selectively releasing approximately 12,000 violent criminals or individuals who were mentally ill into the exodus. 

Towards the end of the Carter Administration the discovery of a Soviet ground forces brigade operating on Cuban territory and the ineptness in handling the Mariel boat lift crisis spelled not only the end of the policy but was also a contributing factor to the defeat of President Carter during his 1980 re-election bid. 

This first attempt at normalizing relations saw a worsening human rights situation in Cuba, a migration crisis and reversals in US interests in the region.

President Reagan restores Cuba embargo in 1981 and challenges Castro regime on international stage

Carter's policy of détente was rejected by the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981 and re-imposed the travel ban, toughened economic sanctions, in 1982 placed the Castro regime on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and started Radio Marti to break through the communist monopoly with uncensored information for Cubans on the island. 

Ronald Reagan backed the creation of a Radio Free Cuba to break Castro regime's information monopoly over the Cuban people beginning in 1981. When it finally went on the air in 1985 Radio Marti marked a before and after inside Cuba. At the time President Reagan hoped that Radio Marti would ''help defuse the war hysteria on which much of current Cuban Government policy is predicated.'' 


The Castro regime's response was to end an immigration agreement and suspend the visits to Cuba by Cubans living in the United States. The Reagan Administration named former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and made human rights in Cuba a priority there. The end result was that for the first and last time Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Commission were able to visit Cuban political prisoners inside the island. There was no Cuba migration crisis during the Reagan Administration.

President Clinton seeks rapprochement with Castro regime in 1993

The Clinton Administration in 1994 initiated regular contacts between the U.S. and Cuban military that included joint military exercises at the Guantanamo Naval base. Despite this improvement of relations the 1990s saw some brutal massacres of Cubans that are rightly remembered such as the July 13, 1994 "13 de Marzo" tugboat massacre and the February 24, 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down. The shoot down involved two planes blown to bits over international airspace by Cuban MiGs killing three American citizens and a Cuban resident who were engaged in the search and rescue of Cuban rafters This led to the signing of the Helms - Burton Bill later in 1996, but as soon as he was re-elected President Clinton renewed his drive for normalized relations with the Castro regime. 

The worsening human rights situation was a contributing factor in the August 1994 rafter crisis in which 35,000 Cubans fled the country. Experts have identified that this was a migration crisis engineered by the Castro regime. The Cuban dictatorship did this because it successfully reasoned that it could coerce the Clinton Administration to the negotiating table to obtain concessions which indeed it did and prolonged the life of the dictatorship  President Clinton  shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 and opened cash and carry trade with the dictatorship loosening economic sanctions.  This new period of engagement coincided with the rise of Hugo Chavez and reversals of the democratic gains made in the 1980s and early 1990s.

President Obama pursues normalization of relations with Castro regime in 2009
The Obama Administration beginning in 2009 loosened sanctions on the Castro regime. On his watch concluding on December 17, 2014 the Obama administration freed all five members of the WASP spy network, including Gerardo Hernandez -- who was serving two life sentences, one of them for conspiracy to murder four members of Brothers to the Rescue murdered during the previous attempt at normalizing relations during the Clinton Administration. They de-linked the pursuit of full diplomatic relations from the rise in human rights violations in Cuba and in the region by Cuban state security.

The Obama administration doubled down on concessions ignoring the Castro regime's continuing sponsorship of terrorism and smuggling of weapons to North Korea in order to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama followed through on his pledge made at the State of the Union to work for the lifting of economic sanctions on the dictatorship.

The Obama Administration marginalized dissidents and downplayed their importance early on in 2009 refusing to meet with them; the Obama State Department threatened the daughter of a martyred dissident in order to protect the sensibilities of the Castro regime's foreign minister in 2015. Not to mention claiming that there was no room for dissidents at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana later that same year.

President Obama went to Cuba with his family in March of 2016, in the midst of a human rights crackdown, and legitimized Raul Castro's regime before an international audience. In October of 2016. Less than a year after a fleeing refugee was shot in the back in the spring of 2015 by a Cuban state security agent. Mr. Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to share information with the Castro regime's secret police.  In January of 2017, in one of his final acts, President Obama further gutted the Cuban Adjustment Act ushering in the wholesale deportation of Cubans fleeing to the United States.


President Obama on December 17, 2014 claimed to have charted a "new" course on Cuba but in reality it was a very old and discredited policy applied in Cuba of marginalizing democrats and embracing dictators for perceived gain.

Human rights have deteriorated in Cuba with rising levels of violence against nonviolent activists. including machete attacks, and the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (2012), and Harold Cepero Escalante (2012).

There were 9,940 politically motivated arbitrary detentions over the course of  2016. In 2009, the first year of the Obama Administration, there were just 869 arbitrary detentions documented. During the eight years of the Obama White House there has been an eleven fold increase in politically motivated arbitrary detentions with 2016 being the worse. Religious repression escalated in Cuba in 2016 including the beating of pastors, the confiscation of Churches and some demolished by the dictatorship.

This worsening situation in Cuba is also reflected in an increase in Cubans fleeing the island. In 2008 there were slightly more than 10,000 visaless Cubans entering the United States compared to 46,635 visaless Cubans entering the United States in the first ten months of 2016.

On the economic front the Obama White House repeatedly claimed to have achieved $6 billion in trade with Cuba under the new policy but the actual number according to the U.S. census bureau is $380.5 million dollars in trade in goods with Cuba.


Trade between Cuba and the United States imploded under the Obama Administration. Peak year of U.S. trade in goods with Cuba was 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration. The two worst years in trade are the ones following the new Cuba policy launch in December of 2014. All of the details are available at the U.S. Census Bureau. The Cuban economy contracted in 2016 and at the same time military control over it has expanded.

The consequences in the region have also been negative. The Castro regime's military and intelligence services have been heavily involved in the attempt to build and impose a totalitarian regime in Venezuela for the past 18 years. Furthermore in Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Ecuador regimes with links to Havana pursue an anti-democratic agenda. Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban dissident blogger journalist, wrote a May 28, 2017 entry titled "The Kremlin is Back."  The Russians returned to Cuba, and made new inroads into Latin America during the Obama years.  


The New York Times has a terrible track record in Cuba and its latest editorial continues that lamentable tradition trying to make the case for the Trump Administration to continue the failed policies of the Obama Administration on Cuba. However, even a broken clock is right twice a day and The New York Times on December 8, 2016 reported how increased U.S. tourism to Cuba has meant more food shortages for Cubans because food production is geared to tourists. The record indicates that the case for tightening sanctions, and pushing a human rights centered policy will best serve both U.S. national interests and the prospects for a non-violent democratic transition.

The good work on Cuba was undone by the Obama Administration when it prioritized engaging with the Castro dictatorship, marginalized Cuban democrats, ignored the regime's support for outlaw regimes, and terrorist groups all in the service of a flawed policy.

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