Comités de represión

The Castros’ New Friend

The Castros’ New Friend
[14-05-2015 22:57:34]
James Kirchick

( Obama’s change of policy helps Cuba’s
oppressive regime, not its democratic dissidents
I’ve visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the
only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal
detector uponentering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately
after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors
line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband —
counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given
to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

Contrary to popular conception, traveling to Cuba as an American was not
difficult before President Barack Obama’s announcement last December of
“the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years.” All
anyone had to do was transit through a third country and not disclose
his visit to Cuba upon reentering through U.S. customs. It was the aura
of the embargo that dissuaded Americans. Moreover, there have long been
myriad legal exceptions for Americans to travel to Cuba: They merely had
to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign
Assets Control (OFAC) under one of twelve broad, rather vague, permitted
categories, such as “educational” and “research.” “Tourism” as such was
and remains prohibited. But since January, travelers to Cuba need not
obtain any OFAC license at all. This essentially means that any American
who wants to venture to Cuba, including those who plan to do nothing but
sit on the beach all day and dance salsa all night, are now free to do so.

The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s
oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation. Preventing anything
that may pose a threat to its continued existence — any material that
might germinate the seed of independent thought within an individual
Cuban’s mind — from making its way onto the island is therefore a
priority. In light of the increased number of tourists visiting Cuba
since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on American
travel, a number that is expected only to grow with time, the Castro
regime has had to beef up its capabilities in this field. But judging
from the headlines of the Cuban Communist-party newspaper, Granma, which
boasted of the dramatic rise in tourism on a recent cover of its weekly
English edition, Havana doesn’t seem to mind.

Some four months after President Barack Obama made his announcement, I
visited Cuba, wanting to find out what its democratic dissidents had to
say about the new winds from Washington. Given the course of American
foreign policy over the past six years, which has seen Washington
“reset” relations with a variety of implacably hostile regimes, the
proclamation of a new policy toward Cuba was hardly surprising. Obama
had signaled his intention to effect such a transformation as early as
the 2008 presidential campaign, when he vowed to negotiate directly with
a host of American adversaries and declared that “we’ve been engaged in
a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change
it.” Though Cuba-watchers assumed a shift of some sort was coming, the
way in which the new policy came about and its list of particulars took
many by surprise.

Obama’s December 17 declaration followed 18 months of secret
negotiations between the president and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl
Castro, who took the reins of power after his older brother Fidel fell
ill in 2008. Even senior State Department officials involved in Latin
American affairs were kept in the dark about the negotiations, which
were led by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in his mid
30s with no official diplomatic experience but who does possess an MFA
in creative writing from New York University. This was the man Obama put
in charge of negotiations with Cold War-hardened Cuban Communist
apparatchiks, and it shows.

In exchange for the release of Alan Gross, an elderly USAID contractor
arrested and accused of espionage in 2009, the United States released
the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five,” a posse of spies sent
to infiltrate the Miami Cuban-exile community in the late 1990s.
Washington insisted that Gross was not a spy, and so in order to avoid
tying his release to the freeing of the Cuban agents, Havana agreed to
deliver a longtime American-intelligence asset it had imprisoned.
Gross’s release from a prison sentence he ought never to have served in
the first place and that nearly killed him was officially presented as
an unrelated act of goodwill.

This swap of prisoners was the only part of Obama’s rapprochement in
which Havana had to reciprocate, and lopsidedly at that. Moreover, it
was just a prelude to the real meat of the Obama announcement: a
loosening of the trade and travel restrictions America has imposed on
Cuba, a collection of measures enforced through six statutes
colloquially known as the “embargo.” The relaxed travel policies, the
pending opening of embassies, the removal of Cuba from the State
Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, the restoration of limited
economic activity — all longtime goals of the Cuban regime — were
declared without any corresponding demands that Havana change its
conduct. Indeed, in his speech announcing the new Cuba policy, Obama
essentially admitted that he would have ushered in these unilateral
changes much earlier had it not been for the “obstacle” that the
imprisonment of an American citizen presented to his grand plans. To
fend off accusations that it was giving away something for nothing, the
administration claimed that the regime would release 53 political
prisoners identified on a State Department list. In January, after weeks
of saying it would not publicize the list, State provided the names to
select members of Congress, revealing that some of the individuals had
been freed before December 17, others were close to finishing their
sentences, and a few had already been rearrested. Indeed, in Cuba, as in
all authoritarian societies, the door to prison is a revolving one. In
March, 610 people were arrested on political charges.

Not only were American diplomats with expertise in the region excluded
from the negotiations (the better to prevent them from leaking against a
policy shift some of them might have considered ill advised), so were
many of the island’s political dissidents and independent journalists.
“I can’t understand why they didn’t ask for preconditions,” Antonio
Rodiles says of America’s negotiating posture.

I spoke with the American-educated political activist at his home. As
with most of the meetings I had with dissidents, I showed up at his
front door unannounced in the evening. Planning appointments in advance
is logistically difficult and inadvisable security-wise. Internet access
is extremely limited (Cuba has the lowest ratio of computers to
inhabitants in the Western hemisphere) and is available almost
exclusively in hotels and embassies. At a price of about $4.50 per hour,
it is far beyond the means of most Cubans. Arranging meetings beforehand
by phone, meanwhile, attracts the attention of the security police, who
are presumed to listen to everything. Rodiles did not seem at all
surprised that an American journalist would visit him at 10 p.m.;
late-night knocks on the door (from foreign well-wishers or worse) seem
to be a regular occurrence.

It’s not only the Cuban security services that monitor dissidents;
nearly all of Cuban society is primed to serve as the regime’s eyes and
ears through the proliferation of local Committees for the Defense of
the Revolution. Established by Castro in 1960 shortly after he took
power, they are dubbed the “civil rearguard for the vanguard of the
militias . . . in the struggle against the internal and external enemy.”
Combining elements of both the Gestapo and the Stasi (children are
encouraged to report on their parents if they see anything suspicious,
and neighbors are expected to rat out friends who might be planning an
escape), CDRs exist on literally every block across the country (over 8
million of Cuba’s 11 million citizens are members) and monitor the
activities of each and every individual in a neighborhood. The CDR
emblem could not be more blatant: a cartoon Cyclops with a giant eye
raising a sword above his head. Initially, Castro praised
his cederistas, as committee members are known, as “1 million gags” for
their ability to silence regime opponents, whom he ritually describes as
subhuman. “It is impossible that the worms and parasites can make their
moves if, on their own, the people . . . keep an eye on them,” he has
declared. One sees CDR signs on all types of buildings across the country.

Cuban dissidents are used to receiving guests and know that they’re
being watched, and I was generously welcomed by the Cubans I met. The
one exception was a young activist who was obviously afraid when I
showed up at his door on a Sunday evening. He politely made it clear
that he wished for me to leave his home immediately. He had somewhere to
be, he said, an assertion that, judging by my finding him shirtless on
the couch watching television, was highly unlikely. But it was his home
I had entered, and his life he was risking, and so I didn’t protest.

Rodiles studied physics and mathematics at Florida State University in
Tallahassee yet ultimately decided to return to his homeland to fight
for democracy. He is the main coordinator of a civil-society group
composed of writers, artists, and other professionals called “Citizen
Demand for Another Cuba,” aimed at persuading the Cuban government to
ratify a series of United Nations covenants on human rights. “They just
started negotiating,” he says of the American government in a bewildered
tone. “They didn’t involve the Cubans from outside or here inside, and I
didn’t understand why they did it that way. If they really want a change
they’re going to see that nothing’s going to change.”

Rodiles takes inspiration from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which
inspired the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia and other
human-rights groups to form behind the Iron Curtain. That accord, at
least officially, committed the Soviet Union and its satellites to
respect human rights, and it provided dissidents such as Václav Havel
and Lech Walesa a public benchmark by which to hold the Communist
regimes to account. Genuine political change in Cuba would require
constitutional reform, as the Cuban constitution permits individual
freedom only insofar as such liberties don’t threaten the Communist
party as “the superior leading force of society and of the state.”
Wilfredo Vallin, a leader of the non-governmental Cuban Law Association,
told me that, “if Cuba ratifies the pacts it would be forced to change
its constitution.” Rodiles despairs that there will be no such American
pressure put upon Cuba to do so, however, as Obama’s aspiration seems to
be normalization at all costs. Restoring full diplomatic ties with
Havana has come to be a legacy project for the president, who views it
as his duty to right America’s many perceived wrongs. “The Obama
administration already has an agenda, and they don’t want to change,”
Rodiles sighs. “They got advice from some people that they think the
better way is to, in some way, legitimize the totalitarian system.”

In light of his own predicament, Rodiles is right to be suspicious of
the administration’s tactics. Less than two weeks after Obama
triumphantly announced a new chapter in America’s relationship with
Cuba, Rodiles was arrested steps from his front door on the way to a
free-speech demonstration in central Havana. A high wall surrounds his
home, but it’s not high enough to block the two cameras posted on
telephone poles across the street that he says monitor his house 24/7.

I ask Rodiles how his campaign is progressing, and he says that about
2,000 people have thus far signed a petition to the government insisting
upon its ratification of international human-rights agreements. It’s a
relatively small number for a country with some 11 million inhabitants,
though Charter 77, it should be noted, had only 242 initial signatories,
in a country that was a few million people larger. Simply signing such a
document immediately brings one under suspicion; it is an act requiring
remarkable courage.

One of the most courageous people I met on the island was Berta Soler,
leader of the Ladies in White. Formed in 2003, Damas de Blanco, as it is
known in Spanish, is a coalition of wives, sisters, daughters, and other
female relatives of imprisoned political dissidents. Their protests are
regularly met with violence by regime-backed mobs, which drag the women
by their hair through the streets. (The regime exports this sort of
thuggery; at last month’s Summit of the Americas in Panama, a horde of
Castro supporters descended on a group of Cuban non-governmental
activists, beating them to the point that Panamanian police had to
intervene.) The organization’s founder, Laura Pollán, created the group
after her husband, a leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal party, was
arrested during the 2003 crackdown known as the “Black Spring.” Pollán
died under mysterious circumstances in 2011, the famed Cuban health-care
system having failed first to accurately diagnose her dengue fever and
then to provide her adequate care.

Like many of the Cubans I meet, Soler takes great pride in making the
most of what little she owns: Her tiny flat is decorated with plants and
various other tchotchkes. A framed photograph of her meeting with Pope
Francis outside St. Peter’s Basilica graces the wall; her dog nips at my
feet. A vivacious Afro-Cuban, Soler lives in a decrepit, concrete
housing block, part of an expanse of apartments on the outer reaches of
Havana so vast that neighborhoods are divided by “zone” numbers. The
crumbling scenery stretches in all directions, bleak and limitless, like
a setting for one of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian short stories.

One way to think of Cuba is as a giant public-housing project. A place
where everyone is a ward of the state, and where private enterprise is
next to nonexistent, the country breeds similar social pathologies.
Walking through the outskirts of Havana and other unfashionable places
where tourists rarely tread, one sees a great number of aimless people
without any sort of vocation. They just hang out. “Cubans don’t go to
work to produce but to sustain,” Soler says. This is not an indictment
of the individual Cuban, who would work were meaningful work available,
but of a regime that wants to keep its people listless.

“The government sells a lot of alcohol to occupy the minds of the
people,” Soler tells me, an observation that makes a lot of sense once
you’ve spent a few days in Cuba. Alcohol is plentiful and cheap. In the
poor provincial city of Pinar del Rio, about a two-hour drive west of
Havana, I saw a boy no older than 13 walking the streets with a
half-empty bottle of beer. A discotheque there was, on a Saturday night,
full of people ranging in age from mid teens to 40s; a bottle of Havana
Club sets you back $6. Subsidizing the production of cheap alcohol so as
to keep the population inebriated (and therefore distracted) is one of
many tools that the Cuban regime learned from its erstwhile Soviet
benefactor. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut production of
vodka, increased its cost, and prohibited the sale of it before
lunchtime. Some historians have speculated that reducing alcohol
consumption, a cushion to dull the pain of everyday life, led Russians
to more quickly understand the misery of their plight, unintentionally
accelerating the Soviet Union’s demise.

Like Rodiles, Soler is highly critical of the Obama administration’s
caving in to the Castros. “Every deal should be conditioned. America has
to put conditions. If you are giving, you have to receive, and for the
moment the American government is receiving nothing,” she says. Soler
says that there has been no letup in the harassment of dissidents;
regime agents smeared one member of her group with tar at a peaceful
protest held in February. “We are in the same position or even worse,”
she thinks, as the Obama administration steamrolls forward with its
normalization plans while asking for nothing in return.

Supporters of restoring relations with Cuba insist that, in the long
run, it will prove detrimental to the Castro regime by opening up the
country to Western influences and economic investment. This has long
been the point made by liberals, libertarians, and even some
conservative opponents of the embargo, who, unlike many leftist
opponents of longstanding American Cuba policy, harbor no sympathy for
the regime. But when I ask Soler whether increased American investment
and more visitors will help people such as herself, she is adamant in
her response. Lifting the embargo in exchange for concrete reforms like
legalizing independent media and ending restrictions on free speech
would make sense, she avers. But lifting it without such conditions, she
tells me, is “beneficial to the government, not the Cuban citizens.
Money is coming in and it’s going straight to the government. Regular
Cubans don’t touch it.”

In his speech announcing the policy shift, President Obama declared
that, “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up
for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move
into the 21st century.” The impracticality of this assertion does not
become fully apparent until one visits Cuba and comes to appreciate how
its peculiar economy functions.

The first thing to understand about the Cuban economy is that the
government controls nearly all forms of economic activity, with the
exception of some black-market activities like prostitution. “In Cuba,
nobody does business with Cubans. They do business with the Castro
family,” says Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based
Center for a Free Cuba. Foreign companies do not hire their own workers
but are assigned them by the government, which acts as middleman.
Furthermore, companies do not pay their workers directly, but rather
compensate the government, which decides how much money to dispense to
its subjects. The Cuban economic system is essentially one of indentured
servitude, with the government loaning out its citizens for massive profit.

In order to prevent ordinary Cubans from acquiring and accumulating
capital, the regime has cleverly instituted a two-currency system. One
currency, the convertible peso (CUC), is pegged to the dollar and used
by tourists to pay for hotels, meals, taxis, and luxury goods available
only in special stores inaccessible to regular Cubans. Visiting Cuba,
foreigners will never need to come into contact with any currency other
than the CUC. Few Cubans, however, receive CUCs. In addition to their
ration books — used to acquire a meager amount of staples such as rice
and cooking oil — Cubans also receive monthly salaries, averaging $19
(less than half the cost of living). They are paid in the Cuban peso
(CUP), equivalent to about 4 cents. These CUPs can be used to splurge on
the occasional extra pair of underwear or to purchase pizza at a food
stand. As they are convertible only into CUCs, CUPs are worthless
outside the country.

The dual-currency system is the basis of the country’s two-tiered
economic structure, dividing Cubans with access to the far more valuable
CUCs from those who earn only CUPs. “Those in the peso-only economy are
completely dependent on the government, which is in control of more than
85 percent of the total economy,” John Kavulich, president of the
U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, told Bloomberg
Businessweek recently. With these two currencies, and with government
ownership of industries as well as of the tourist trade, the regime has
ensured that the coming influx of American dollars will fall into its
coffers. “The system is cleverly and cynically designed to guarantee the
fullest exploitation of every Cuban worker for the benefit of the Castro
pocketbook,” says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights
Foundation, which for years has sent small undercover delegations into
Cuba with laptops, cell phones, cameras, and other technical equipment
to distribute among dissidents and local journalists. (Raúl announced in
2013 that the regime will scrap the CUC and make the CUP the country’s
sole currency, though it is unclear when, or even if, this reform will

Though the Castro regime and its defenders like to blame America for its
problems, pointing to the embargo as chief culprit, it is not for lack
of American investment that Cuba is so poor. Cuba under Castro has
always been a client of another, more economically powerful state that
is happy to subsidize it for propagandistic or strategic purposes. For
decades, that sponsor was the Soviet Union, which initially saw value in
Cuba as a military outpost (and irritant of America) 90 miles off
Florida’s coast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a
period of sustained economic decline, which lasted until the arrival of
Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian regime in Venezuela. Subsidies (amounting to
about 100,000 barrels of oil a day at half the market price) from the
oil-rich Venezuelans managed to help Fidel right the ship, but as the
collapse in commodity prices and disastrous economic mismanagement have
drastically reduced Caracas’s support for its comrades in Havana, the
Castro regime has drifted about searching for another patron. Barack
Obama could not have arrived at a more opportune time.

The initial charm of Havana is undeniable. To the American, for whom it
has long been a forbidden place, the city exudes mythology and mystique.
The vintage cars (over whose noisy engines one must shout the
destination to drivers), the music of Buena Vista Social Club, an
atmosphere evocative of Hemingway, women singing in the streets to sell
their wares — all these cultural touchstones combine to make a heady
experience. Foreign tourists rave about the city’s rustic and
“authentic” atmosphere, laud the salsa dancing, and gawk at the 1950s
Mercury Sun Valleys that clog the roads (for some reason, the plethora
of Soviet-era Ladas don’t make it into the colorful photo albums
extolling Cuba’s retro urban cool). Few visitors bother to visit an
actual Cuban home, and so you won’t hear them coo about the “classic”
1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have
one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main
tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I
imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out
sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying
buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro’s visage and some
revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I
watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

“Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat
and there’s nothing there,” Berta Soler told me. “If you’re able to find
it, it’s bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, ‘What am I going to
eat today?’ and go to sleep thinking ‘What am I going to eat tomorrow?'”
I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a
moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a
canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board,
the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more
eager to consume airplane cuisine.

Experiencing socialism as pure as it exists in the contemporary world,
one finds something vile about the tendency of so many First World
leftists, out of a perverse belief that there exists a thrilling
nobility in involuntary (as opposed to deliberate) poverty, to
romanticize Cuba. For a state that claims to be classless, Cuba
ironically has a highly stratified class system. Cuba’s wealthy elite
represents a smaller and much richer percentage of the country’s
population (combined net worth of the Castro brothers: $900 million)
than the elite of a typical developed nation; its poor, consisting of
the vast majority, meanwhile, are much more destitute.

“Socially responsible tourism” has long been a fashionable concern.
There are countless travel websites and guidebooks devoted to the
concept, which urge explorers to be eco-friendly, patronize local
businesses rather than international hotel chains, and generally try to
leave the destination better than they found it. This altruistic pursuit
is next to impossible in Cuba, ironically one of the most popular
pilgrimage destinations for the progressive traveler. My first two
nights in Havana, I stayed at a casa particular, a private home whose
owner has been permitted to rent out extra rooms to tourists. The
landlady, a former Russian teacher, related how the government imposes a
huge monthly tax consisting of a percentage of her earnings in addition
to a levy that is fixed regardless of how many guests she hosts.

Aside from the meager number of CUCs that operators of casas
particulares get to keep, as well as the occasional tips accumulated by
hotel bellboys and the like, practically all of the money that foreign
tourists spend in Cuba winds up in the pockets of the regime. The
government owns outright most of the hotels and maintains at least a 51
percent stake in resorts that are nominally the property of major
foreign chains. Taxi drivers are obliged to turn over a fixed amount of
cash to the government every month, as are the seemingly independent
mom-‘n’-pop dining establishments. “When you see a private business and
you see it’s prosperous, they have some relationship with people from
the elite,” Rodiles explains to me. “Without, it’s impossible.” Socially
responsible tourism to Cuba is not only a chimera but a perversion of
the concept.

The Cuban embargo is not a hardship for the ordinary Cuban. It is, at
most, an inconvenience for American travelers to Cuba, who cannot use
their credit or ATM cards in the country and must therefore prepare for
their visit by making all of their arrangements in advance over the
Internet and also bring a large amount of cash (preferably euros). This
was a lesson I learned the hard way, forcing me to ration the relatively
small amount of cash I brought to the island. The administration has
said that it will ease restrictions on American financial institutions
operating in Cuba, which will make things more convenient for American
travelers and allow them to spend money on the island more easily. But
few Cubans will ever see that cash.

That American policy toward Cuba over the past half century has “failed”
is a widely held assumption. It is accurate, however, only insofar as
“success” is characterized by the transformation of Cuba into a liberal
democracy. (By this standard, why is not the rest of the world’s policy
toward Cuba — which consists of treating it like any other country —
also judged a “failure”?) Proponents of engagement laud Raúl Castro’s
easing of travel restrictions, slight opening of the economy, and other
reforms instituted since he took power in 2008, but they never
acknowledge the possibility that all of the American pressure and
isolation leading up to that point might have had something to do with
the changes.

To be sure, not all of Cuba’s democratic dissidents oppose the Obama
administration’s opening. “[The embargo] is only helpful for the
government,” Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, co-founder of a small,
independent news agency called Hablemos (Let’s Talk) Press, tells me.
Pérez gathers information from correspondents across the country and
regularly uploads it onto the agency’s website during the two-hour daily
timeslot he’s allotted by the regime to use a foreign embassy’s Internet
connection. His colleagues occasionally distribute printed newsletters;
two of them served jail terms for passing out samizdatliterature. Yet
Pérez’s wife, Margaly, a member of the Ladies in White, disagrees with
her husband, noting that such division of opinion is common in dissident
households. This, in itself, is a testament to the vitality of the
civil, democratic debate that already exists among Cuba’s independent

The embargo (long falsely referred to as a “blockade” by the Cuban
regime and its Western sycophants) has been portrayed as the tool of
ruthless, embittered Cuban exiles. The “right-wing Miami Cubans” of
lore, whose “right-wing” views include support for multi-party
democracy, freedom of speech, and an end to the statist economic system
in which a family-cum-military syndicate owns practically everything,
allegedly have, out of vindictiveness, inflicted the embargo upon those
benighted Cubans who stayed behind. But that’s not the way the
dissidents I met see the situation. “The problem that Cuba has had isn’t
the embargo,” Soler tells me. “It’s the system that’s not working. Fidel
and Raúl just sold a story that’s not true, internationally and

The outsize role America plays in the Cuban popular imagination is
apparent in its embassy, which is unique in ways other than that it is
officially called an “interests section,” denoting the lack of official
diplomatic relations. Most of the foreign legations in Havana are
located in Miramar, a tony area several kilometers from the capital’s
center. There, the embassies are housed in giant villas that belonged to
the elite who ruled in the era of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The
American interests section, however, is a heavily guarded compound on
the Malecón, the stone embankment abutting the strip of road along the
Caribbean Sea. And unlike the old mansions of Havana’s Miramar district,
it consists of a seven-story, nondescript office tower. In 2006, in an
inspired bit of diplomacy that today cynics might refer to as
“trolling,” the Bush administration erected a Times Square-style ticker
visible across 25 windows on the top floor and displaying blunt,
pro-democracy messages in bright red letters. Its components smuggled
into Cuba via diplomatic pouch, the makeshift display flashed quotes
ranging from the anodyne (“Democracy in Cuba”) to the mildly provocative
(Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream that one day this nation will
rise up”).

This obviously annoyed the regime, and in response, it erected 138 poles
topped with black flags to obstruct the ticker’s visibility (Castro also
ordered the parking lot of the interests section be dug up). The poles
were installed at the end of the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, a
plaza directly outside the interests section consisting of a stage and
large concrete slabs on which are painted the ubiquitous revolutionary
buzzphrases “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) and “Venceremos”
(“We Shall Overcome”). Fifteen years ago, in the midst of the Elián
González affair, the Cuban government erected a statue of Martí — a
leader of the movement seeking Cuba’s independence from Spain —
clutching a small child (meant to be González) while pointing his finger
accusatorily at the American building. Over the years, whenever the
Cuban regime has wanted to gin up anger at the United States, it has
bused tens of thousands of supporters to the Anti-Imperialist Platform,
where they can spit venom at the building Fidel has called a “nest of

In 2009, several months after Obama assumed office, the State Department
removed the ticker, deeming it confrontational. It was a sign of things
to come. Today, the heavily fortified interests section and the vast
plaza outside are no longer the sites of dueling slogans, the respective
physical representations of American democratic freedoms and Cuban
Communist obfuscations. The administration’s decision to abandon its
predecessor’s robust, if piquant, provocation can be seen as a metaphor
for the broader policy changes it has implemented over the past four
months, deserting the island’s democrats in pursuit of a no-conditions
deal with their oppressors. While the rest of the world — with a few
noble exceptions, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, ex-Communist
countries that reversed their pro-Castro policies almost immediately
after the Cold War transitions and began providing vigorous support to
the dissidents — has accepted the regime and resigned itself to its
perpetuation, America long stood as the most outspoken supporter of
democracy in Cuba.

Changes to another edifice also signal something ominous about politics
on the island. On my first day in Havana, I walked past El Capitolio,
the pre-revolutionary parliament modeled on the U.S. Capitol. Early in
his rule, Castro found that he didn’t have much use for the building
(“true democracy” would be expressed through voting by a show of hands
in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución), and so it was converted into the
Cuban Academy of Sciences. El Capitolio is set to reopen later this
year, once again serving as a legislative body, housing the
rubber-stamp, single-party National Assembly. Walking past, I noticed
that the building’s exterior granite walls were halfway through a
resurfacing, an overhaul well timed for the huge number of American
tourists expected to descend upon the island over the coming year. When
it’s finished, the regime will have put a gleaming new façade on its
artificial house of representatives.

— Mr. Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a
correspondent for theDaily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet.

Source: The Castros’ New Friend – Misceláneas de Cuba –

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