The Obstacles to Normalization:
President Obama’s December 17th announcement to begin normalizing relations with Cuba sparked hot debate on both sides of the Florida Strait. It also began a political process that won’t end until a highly fractious Congress can agree on new legislation, not likely to happen any time soon. Among other obstacles is the long-questioned human rights record of the Castro regime. Independent watchdog organization Freedom House says Cuba falls just shy of its “worst of the worst list” for denying its citizens political rights and civil liberties.
Since 1995, the US government has tried to offer support to dissidents with its “wet foot, dry foot” policy. And on the island, heads of the US Interests Section in Cuba have done their part to support freedom of expression. James Cason held that role in 2003, the year of Cuba’s Black Spring. He’s now the Mayor of Coral Gables, FL.
“There were independent libraries being set up everywhere. You had independent doctors and nurses and the opposition was beginning to play in what the Cubans called the battle of ideas,” says Cason.
He recounts how Fidel Castro cracked down on the budding independent movement, arresting 75 leading dissidents and sending them off to prisons around the island.
Cason did what he could to support the dissidents and their families, offering them internet access and trying to generate international press on their behalf. President Obama attempted a similar appeal. Part of his agreement to open relations with Cuba involved an exchange of prisoners and the release of 53 political dissidents. But Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a key advisor on Latin American issues in President Reagan’s State Department, says this action is not conducive to any real change in Cuba.
“The problem with these dictatorships is they can always arrest people faster than we can get them out,” he says.
Abrams is also skeptical that loosening the long-standing sanctions against Cuba will have any real impact on their economy. He points out that Cuba’s trade with the rest of the world has done little to reign in Castro’s harsh policies. “Look at Vietnam; look at China; look at Cambodia,” he says. “It’s just not the case that increased trade with the United States changes the politics of a Communist regime. Cuba trades freely with about 200 countries around the world including all of Europe and Canada and Latin America, and it hasn’t brought an ounce of freedom to Cuba.”
Taking a more optimistic approach is Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center in DC. Arnson notes how even these relatively small changes have already yielded some tangible results, though she realizes there is still much work ahead.
“I think what we have gotten in return is the opportunity to engage more productively on those issues of human rights violations, of the treatment of political dissidents, of the creation of space,” she says. “There’s no guarantee that that will be successful. But at least it’s a different path.”
Arturo Lopez-Levy also sees this shift as an opportunity for Cubans. Lopez-Levy was a political analyst for the Cuban Ministry of the Interior from 1993-1994 and has since taught and written extensively about Cuba. He disagrees with Abrams’ assessment that the economic impact on the people will be minimal.
“If we end the embargo basically what we are saying is it’s up to you to get more from the world in which you live,” he argues. “This is quite important at a moment of critical transition in Cuban society and the Cuban elite.”
Lopez -Levy also contends that opening the island to American tourists will help turn the country around saying that Americans are the “best ambassadors of American values.”
But for those who have watched the Castros for a half century, the idea that they would willingly do anything that could undermine their grip on power is unlikely. Frank Calzon is the director of the DC-based Center for a Free Cuba. He argues that Obama should be tightening the screws not loosening them, and suggests that a better move for the US government would be to lead an international collation to force Raul Castro’s hand to negotiate with his own people.
Calzon further argues that President Obama’s new policy is a vast overreach. “The US president has no right to negotiate the future of the Cuban people,” he says. “And Raul Castro does not represent the people of Cuba. Why is Mr. Castro discussing Cuban problems with a foreign government?”
Despite the wide range of opinions on effectiveness or even appropriateness of this new path forward there is widespread agreement that ultimately it will be up to the Cuban people themselves to create real change in the country. In which direction things will go remains to be seen.
Why A Free Internet May be the Single Biggest Force in Changing Cuba
Under the Castro Regime, everything in Cuba is closely monitored, especially the internet. According to Carlos Ponce of the international watchdog group Freedom House, only about five percent of residents in Cuba have unrestricted access to the web. And of those five percent, most of them work for the government or are part of the Cuban elite. One major barrier is the cost of getting online which, Ponce says, can eat up a large portion of the average Cuban’s monthly salary. The other is the fear of government spying on everything from emails to phone calls.
“If you want to talk with somebody in the island you have to find a secure line,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t want to talk because it’s too expensive to use the cell phones, and they know that somebody’s going to listen.”
At the same time, the government’s push for universal education has lead to a nearly 100% literacy rate and a country full of smart, motivated people with few outlets for expression and little access to the outside world.
Yoani Sanchez is a well-known Cuban blogger and advocate for freedom of expression. She says there’s a thirst for technology on the island which has lead to some ingenious solutions. She built her first computer out of scrap parts. “And I remember a friend of mine had given me something that was useless – this was a machine for purposes of plucking hair from your legs. And I traded that in the black market for a microprocessor.”
Sanchez says there’s a thriving black market for electronics in Cuba as well as a large illegal network of wifi connections and ethernet cables snaking from house to house. There’s also something known as the Sneakernet, a system of passing information from person to person through flash drives and pen drives. Sanchez says this has been a lifeline for many.
“One day when Cuba changes, in additional to all the statues that you will have to build and the ones you will have to tear down, they will have to build a statue to the flash memory,” Sanchez says.” “Because that’s how we’re doing it. Because that small device has given us a lot of freedom, has given us a lot of information, and has enabled us to exchange copies and copies from hand to hand to learn about the social stability, to hear their voices and to see their faces.”
This opening of relations between the US and Cuba has many hoping that things like the Sneakernet will become obsolete once widespread unfettered internet access is available. Freedom House’s Carlos Ponce sees the possible infusion of new technology into the country as a good development as long as it’s paired with a loosening of government restrictions on that technology. “It is positive to have better technologies,” he says. “Or to find a way with satellites, or with other ways to have access to better internet connections in Cuba… But I don’t think that’s the government approach right now.”
Yet the momentum of change is palpable for people like 26-year-old Raul Moas of the Miami-based organization Roots of Hope. Since 2009, his organization has distributed more than 12,000 pieces of electronics to young people on the island including refurbished laptops, USBs, cell phones, and tablets. And they did it legally. As Moas explains, what Cuba needs now is an evolution, not another revolution.
“Our goal is not a political one,” he says. “It’s not regime change in Cuba. It’s not to bring down government. Not at all. Our goal and status is to empower people, to empower generations, so that they can define what their country’s future should look like.”
That said, once they’ve distributed the electronics, they don’t monitor how the technology is used. Maos points to “the package” – essentially a collection of digital media: TV shows, music, digital magazines, offline copies of websites including all of Wikipedia – uncensored material that comes in to the island through travelers or illegal satellite dishes. All of this is bought and sold on the black market and distributed via flash drive. Moas says it’s this Cuban ingenuity that will drive change on the island.
“Anything we can do to contribute to that, to having Cubans feel like they have a voice, they’re not just listeners, but rather they can be active contributors and participants in a conversation about the nation’s future, is a good thing,” he says.
Moas says with each new connection, each new conversation, and each new voice willing to speak out, there is a greater likelihood that change will finally come to a government whose policies have been stagnate for decades.