Cuba may be just a stone’s throw from the southernmost tip of Florida, but it exists in another universe when it comes to basic human rights.This week President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Marxist-Leninist republic since 1959. [revad1] During his address from Havana, Obama called for an expansion of freedoms in the communist country. If that message didn’t reach Cuba’s jail cells, we can only hope that President Raul Castro heard it loud and clear. The same liberties that we take so seriously in the United States; freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceably assemble, were being dragged through the mud even as the leader of the free world addressed the Cuban people. You see winter just ended, and the Cuban government decided it should do a little spring cleaning before the president got to town. Far from vacuuming and busting out the Swiffer though, Cuba’s leadership took it upon themselves to sweep the streets clean of dissidents and protestors. As USA Today and other outlets have reported, Cuban authorities rounded up dozens of dissidents who were marching for human rights, just hours before President Obama’s arrival. It was nothing new of course, dissidents in Cuba are arrested all the time, but for some whacky reason the members of the activist group the “Ladies In White” thought the government would let their weekly protest slide while Obama was in town. Berta Soler, a founding member of the group, said it was imperative that the plight of the Cuban political opposition get on Obama’s radar. “For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” Soler said before being arrested. “And he needs to know that we are here being repressed simply for exercising our right to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.” Dissident Antonio Rodiles told CNN that he and his wife were arrested after she yelled pro-democracy slogans on their way to an interview. Jail for peacefully protesting and touting pro-democracy slogans? If we did that in the U.S. every twitter user and college student in the country would be behind bars right now. Human Rights Watch has hammered Cuba for its treatment of dissent and criticism, and called on President Obama to do the same. For his part Obama did call for Cuban citizens to “be free to speak their mind without fear.” And in 2014, long before the president’s arrival in Havana, Cuba agreed to release 53 political prisoners in an effort to normalize diplomatic relations with the U.S. However there are conflicting reports about whether those prisoners have actually been released with some journalists and activists claiming that they have not. If we do plan to extend a political and economic olive branch to Cuba then we have a responsibility as global ambassadors for liberty to demand concrete social and political change on the island. Free speech, and the right to dissent are essential in safeguarding our other freedoms. Our rights as human beings go only so far as our right to disagree with the powers that be, and not land in jail for doing so. Thus far Cuba’s approach to free expression has been mere lip service. It’s akin to the way teenagers act when the cops cruise by a high school keg party. Shut the lights, kill the music, and draw the blinds, wait until the squad car turns down the block and party on. Likewise, if the dissidents are shoved into jail cells before the president arrives then who’s to say that life under the Castro regime isn’t all Cohibas and Cuba libres? The dissidents, to be sure, if only they weren’t trapped behind those pesky prison bars. Improved relations with Cuba can come to a mutually beneficial conclusion for the U.S. and Cuban citizens, but only if the Cuban government is held to the same standard as governments in the free world. As a nation our character will be assessed by the rest of the world based on the company that we keep. If we pal around with oppressive regimes and look on as dissent and free expression are extinguished then we will be viewed as hypocrites. If we demand transparency, and hold accountable the governments with which we align ourselves then we can maintain our status as a shining beacon of freedom and liberty. When it comes to diplomacy with Cuba our efforts should be geared toward the benefit of the Cuban people before they benefit the Cuban government.
March 24, 2016