Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Solution to #Cuba's Problems Does Not Live in the White House

I just published an op-ed (in Spanish) in El Nuevo Herald entitled "The Solution to Cuba's Problems Does Not Live in the White House."

In the article, I take on the same topic that Ed Rogers does in his recent Washington Post op-ed - Obama's impending trip to Cuba - but I make a different argument and come to a different conclusion.

If you want to join the debate, you can do so by going to the new serious debate site @Parlio and adding your (thoughtful and respectful) two (or 25) cents.

We are dealing here with two separate but related issues:

1) The historically antagonistic relationship between the U.S. government and the Cuban government, where Cuba has successfully convinced much of the world that it is a victim of the US imperial bully via the embargo (with some reason and a lot of cynical manipulation),

and

2) The ongoing victimization of the Cuban people by the Cuban government via an "internal embargo" on their fundamental freedoms.

If in trying to normalize relations with the Cuban government - which I believe is in US interests - we can successfully remove ourselves as the Cuban government's bête noire (both in the eyes of the world and of the Cuban people) and use the normalization as a way to more effectively empower the Cuban people in terms of economic prosperity and access to modern technology, then both the normalization and the Obama visit are well worth the risk of implicitly recognizing Cuban sovereignty under the current undemocratic government.

But our necessary recognition of Cuban's national sovereignty (under the Castros or another future government) should in no way exempt the government from recognizing that its sovereignty - like that of any nation - is derived from the popular sovereignty of each and every one of its citizens - whom it has long preferred to treat as subjects.

This approach has the added potential of reminding both Cubans on the island and the international community that no one but the Cuban government itself will be left to blame for Cuba's internal "blockade" on prosperity and a whole host of fundamental civil liberties and political freedoms. In other words, it will allow us to change the conversation from one that is always about "el bloqueo" to one that is about the Cuban people and their struggle for freedom and prosperity.

Our failed past policy of isolation and impoverishment was always born more by the long-suffering Cuban people than it ever was by the Party stalwarts or members of the Castro Clan. But it did serve very effectively in giving the Castros a flag to rally nationalist ire around and a foreign Goliath against whom it could implant a siege mentality - both devastating for the development of any independent civil society.

However, this means Obama's trip can't be a shallow photo-op exclusively with government leaders or a "fun" celebrity show a la Rihanna. Obama must take advantage of the visit to stand up forcefully and unapologetically (if respectfully) for American values (a free press, human rights, representative government) and make clear to the Cuban people that our engagement with the Island is aimed primarily at making their daily lives "un poco más fácil" (a little bit easier) in terms of bread and butter issues (starting with entrepreneurship and Internet but including salaries, housing, and the price of food).

Obama must also make meetings with a broad cross section of Cuban civil society a central part of the trip - first so he can listen to what they have to say (including both those dissidents who support his policy and the others who have criticized it), and second so he can use the visit as a way to publicly and symbolically legitimize them to the world and to their fellow Cubans (including to the government itself).

It is supremely ironic that the Cuban government is capable of sitting down with its erstwhile enemy "Tio Sam" but is totally incapable of and unwilling to sit down with its own diverse and often dissenting citizens.

Marco Rubio once (in)famously compared Americans visiting Cuba to tourists visiting caged animals in a zoo. Last night Yoani Sánchez spoke here in NYC and said that while the metaphor may be somewhat apt, she understands it through the eyes of one of the caged (but courageous) animals inside. Some visitors may stare at the poor animals, but others can use the visit as a way to reach through the bars and help those inside - even going so far as to pass them a key that may open the lock.

If you never make the trip, you simply abandon those inside the cages to their fate.

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