Obama’s feckless defense of human rights in Cuba
NAT HENTOFF: Obama’s feckless defense of human rights in Cuba
POSTED: 04/02/16, 2:00 AM EDT
The Castro dictatorship’s response was immediate and severe. According
to Elizardo Sanchez, the president of the Cuban Commission for Human
Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 2,555 political
detentions in Cuba during the first two months of 2016.
It is a familiar pattern. As we wrote last fall, the Cuban government’s
response at each stage in the process of reconciliation with the United
States has been a steady escalation in the arbitrary harassment, abuse,
arrest and detention of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents. Crackdowns on
political dissidents preceded both the September visit of Pope Francis
and the opening of the U.S. Embassy in August.
Obama proceeded with his historic visit to Cuba in spite of the
crackdowns. When his plane landed in Havana last Sunday, Raul Castro was
not present to greet him.
To his credit, Obama gave a lengthy speech on human rights, which was
broadcast live on Cuban state television. He also held a two-hour
meeting with a group of prominent Cuban political dissidents, something
Pope Francis did not do. U.S. Embassy staff had to escort the dissidents
to the meeting for fear they would be arrested if they tried to attend
on their own.
One dissident who could not attend the meeting was Carlos Manuel
Figueroa Alvarez, one of 53 Cuban political prisoners released in
December 2014 as part of the negotiations that began the process of
On Sept. 30, Figueroa climbed the fence of the newly opened U.S. Embassy
and shouted, “Down With Raul!” as he rushed toward the building in a bid
for political asylum. Figueroa was detained by the embassy’s security
staff and immediately turned over to Cuban authorities. In January, the
AP reported that he was in prison awaiting trial.
Castro was asked about Cuba’s political prisoners by CNN’s Jim Acosta
during a joint news conference with President Obama. Castro’s response
raised belligerent sarcasm to an art form:
“What political prisoners? Give me a name or names, or when, after this
meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners and if we
have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.”
Obama stood mute. It would have sent a powerful message to Castro if the
president had ticked off a list of Cuba’s remaining political prisoners
by name — such as Carlos Manuel Figueroa Alvarez — and demanded that
they be released. But sending powerful messages to dictators is not one
of Obama’s talents.
This was apparent when Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry held a
wreath-laying ceremony at the monument to Jose Marti in Havana’s
Revolution Square on Monday. Marti was a philosopher, journalist and
freedom fighter who died in 1895 leading a revolution against the
Spanish occupation of Cuba. Obama quoted Marti more than once during his
speech on human rights, although he failed to note that Marti’s goal was
to establish a democratic republic in Cuba.
But the hoped-for symbolism of a U.S. president laying a wreath at the
Marti memorial was overshadowed, literally, by a five-story relief
sculpture of Che Guevara looming over the ceremony from a nearby
building. The rendering of Guevara makes it appear that the Castro
dictatorship’s former chief executioner is winking at those assembled below.
We were reminded of the time Nat interviewed Guevara during a meeting at
the Cuban mission to the United Nations in the early 1960s. Guevara,
dressed in his neatly pressed military uniform, professed not to
understand English and spoke through an interpreter.
“Mr. Guevara, can you envision at any time in the future that there
might be free elections in Cuba?” he was asked by Nat.
Guevara didn’t wait for the interpreter. He burst out laughing. In
between his amused chortles, he managed to respond, “Aqui? In Cuba?”
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment
and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior
fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney
in New York City.
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