Every Sunday the wives, mothers, sisters and other female relatives of Cuba’s political prisoners attend Mass dressed all in white. Afterwards Los Damas de Blanco walk silently through the streets in their white clothing. They have been jeered at, attacked by government organised mobs and arrested.
These brave Ladies in White were doing this before the Obama administration announced the normalisation of USA – Cuba relations in the interests of influencing the communist dictatorship. Los Damas de Blanco continue to walk today, two and a half years later.
The Obama rapprochement with the communist regime failed utterly. As a consequence, President Trump announced last week that he plans to roll back parts of that policy. In Trump’s opinion, ‘The previous administration’s easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime’.
At the centre of Trump’s plan is a prohibition on commerce with any businesses owned by Cuban military or intelligence services. Such enterprises account for more than half of the Cuban economy. As it is not always easy to know in which businesses the regime has an interest, the new policy will have a chilling effect on potential buyers and investors.
To great fanfare in late 2014 President Obama announced the re-opening of relations with Cuba. Restrictions on financing of exports to Cuba, limits on shipping products to the island, and restrictions on individual tourism were relaxed. More importantly, banks were allowed to finance most exports to Cuba on credit.
The declared purpose of the relaxation was, among other things, to ‘unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans’, to ‘engage and empower the Cuban people’, and to ‘empower the nascent Cuban private sector’. There has been no impact on these goals.
Little has changed for those suffering under Havana’s totalitarian regime, perhaps because Obama offered the communist authorities unilateral concessions asking nothing in return. Cuba’s record of systematically engaging in arbitrary detention of dissidents and democracy activists is decades long but no human rights conditions were placed on the regime.
The communist state apparatus continues its monopoly of radio, television and newspapers. After communist China, Cuba is the world’s second largest prison for journalists.
The Obama administration said it wished to open Cuba to the internet. Cuba still suffers from some of the lowest connectivity rates anywhere. A few dozen tightly controlled Wifi spots were established. They charge $2 per hour, Cuba’s average income is $20 per month. US visitor numbers have increased by 50 per cent, filling the pockets of the tourist industry’s boss, Raúl Castro’s son-in-law. Meanwhile, Cuba’s purchases of US goods have fallen by a double-digit percentage.
The anticipated explosion in individual enterprise has not materialised. On the contrary, the number of licensed self-employed workers has been dropping. Any commercial deals resulting from the Obama measures benefited Cuban state, military and intelligence agencies; only they are allowed to engage in foreign trade.
Americans may now be able to enjoy Cuban rum and cigars but the people of Cuba continue to suffer. Since the ‘thaw’ was announced the regime has increased its oppression. Hours prior to Obama’s much heralded visit in March 2016 dozens were arrested.
The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports that during the first six months of 2016, there were on average 1,095 short-term political detentions; there were 718 on average in 2015.
Prominent leaders of Cuba’s non-violent opposition think Obama’s concessions to the communist regime have been counter-productive to the fight for freedom. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, described as ‘Cuba’s Nelson Mandela’, spent 17 years in Castro’s gulag. He argues that ‘a vital segment of the Cuban Resistance’ view the Obama administration’s policy of appeasement ‘as a betrayal of the aspiration to freedom of the Cuban people’. The USA taking a soft line has only helped the communist regime cling to power.
There are reasons to be optimistic. Cuba’s democracy movement has many tremendous young, freedom-loving leaders. The ruling communist dictatorship is led by ageing tyrants and ambitious bureaucrats, clinging to their last years in power. Their despotism will end eventually and freedom will prevail. The right stance by the USA is important to achieving this end.
Trump’s approach differs fundamentally from Obama’s. He has taken a hard line toward the regime declaring: ‘To the Cuban government, I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves to political and economic freedoms, return the fugitives from American justice’.
Naturally, there has been criticism of Trump, especially from ‘progressives’ who have yet to see a communist regime with which they don’t sympathise. Certainly, there is a difference of approach between a community organiser and a businessman. One makes concessions without insisting on something in return; the other makes a deal, ‘I’ll give you something if you give me something’.
How many dictatorships have given up power voluntarily because the West was nice to them? Ronald Reagan faced great hostility and abuse when he called the USSR an ‘evil empire’ and spoke of the ‘age old struggle between good and evil’. We were assured this would only make matters worse.
Reagan, aided by Margaret Thatcher, didn’t listen but adopted a hard-line aggressive posture against the Soviet Union. By breaking away from the previous détente position, they opened the way for the eventual collapse of the communist dictatorship of the USSR. The wall did come down.
Let us hope that Trump’s policy stand will lead to the day when brave women dressed in white don’t need to walk through Havana’s streets surrounded by jeering state stooges and risking arrest.