A leading Cuban dissident came to Washington last week to urge U.S. policymakers not to abandon those working for peaceful change on the island, as President Barack Obama’s White House continues its mono-focus on normalizing relations with the Castro regime.
Physicist Antonio Rodiles — whose bloody visage received widespread attention after government security forces beat him in 2012 — told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that the Obama administration should recognize “who its friends are” in Cuba, and not marginalize those struggling for precisely the kind of change that Obama professes to want.
Rodiles warned observers not to be fooled by the process of “fake change” underway in Cuba under Raul Castro, who is interested only in transitioning power to his immediate family members. “There should be no doubt that the regime is taking concrete steps to continue the dynasty,” he said.
Rodiles said the only possibility of real change in Cuba will come when the Castro family is out of the picture and the regime’s entire totalitarian edifice begins to be deconstructed.
“I don’t want to think that, little by little, in 20 years the regime is going to change,” he added. “I don’t have time for that. I want the regime to change right now.”
I asked Rodiles to explain why the regime, if repressive as ever, currently allows dissidents to travel to the United States and return to Cuba. He told me it was part of the regime’s incurred “cost” to project an image of change for foreign consumption. He said the situation for him and his fellow dissidents remains unchanged on the ground.
That remained true, he lamented, after the administration’s unconditional overtures to the Castros. “Right now, the regime feels more comfortable, more legitimate, and now they are more violent,” he said.
The statistics, regrettably, bear that out. The Miami Herald cites the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in Cuba in 2015, a 315 percent increase from five years ago. In January and February of this year alone, more than 2,500 people were arrested for political reasons.
But the even bigger indictment of the administration’s misguided Cuba policy is the number of Cubans who simply want out. Citing U.S. Coast Guard statistics, the Miami Herald reports, “if the Cuban migrant flow by sea continues at the same pace, total interceptions, sightings or arrivals during fiscal year 2015 — 4,476 — may be surpassed before the end of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.”
The rote media explanation is that Cubans fear that Obama’s rapprochement could mean an end to special immigration privileges. However, this fails to explain two things: Why, if Cuba is “changing,” as the president’s echo-chamber denizens want us to believe, are Cubans continuing to flee? If the goal of Obama’s policy is to “improve the lives of Cubans,” then why are record numbers of Cubans leaving?
The answer, of course, is that most Cubans have about as much faith in the Castros’ ability to change after six decades as they do in Obama’s ability to make their lives better. Indeed, as Rodiles says, to most Cubans, Obama’s about-face on U.S. policy signaled the exact opposite: namely, accepting the permanence of the regime.
Other aspects of Obama’s outreach have also failed to bear much fruit. Tourist travel, which Obama has allowed by end-running U.S. law through executive decree, has been captured by the Cuban military, which controls all of the profits while keeping real people-to-people contact carefully controlled. Rodiles says no tourist group has visited him or anyone he knows since 2014.
Obama’s echo-chamberists also claimed that a lower U.S. profile on human rights would allow other countries to step up their support for dissidents and rights activists. Instead, Rodiles says, most embassies have decreased their contact with the opposition in recent months.
None of this will be surprising to anyone with a sober understanding of the nature of the Cuban regime. It was as predictable as the rising sun. But the Cuba play is of a piece with the rest of the administration’s foreign policy outlook, which holds that international discord has as much to do with inflexible U.S. positions (read: commitment to principle) as it does with the belligerent behavior of our adversaries. But such dreamy thinking is why we have faculty lounges and situation rooms. We can only hope the next U.S. president is savvy enough to realize the difference.
Why Your Tourism Dollars Aren’t Helping Ordinary Cubans
The news out of Cuba lately is all glamour and glitz. Usher made a visit. A Carnival Cruise ship arrived packed with excitable tourists. French luxury goods maker Chanel turned a Havana boulevard into a fashion show runway featuring sparkling cocktail dresses and sequined black berets.
Next up: The Kardashians are filming their reality television show in Cuba. On the heels of President Obama’s historic visit last March, it might be easy to get the impression that this explosion of American attention is all part of Cuba’s speedy march toward modernization.
Let’s not fool ourselves. It’s one thing to reopen our embassy and allow limited tourism and investment. It’s quite another to expect these steps to quickly lead to transformation of what’s still, lest we forget, a one-party communist dictatorship 90 miles from Florida. Diplomatic normalization plus a celebrity patina does not equal real reform.
America’s true goals in Cuba are to restore democracy and bring the island back into the global economy. We aim to bury half a century of enmity and to seek resolution for thousands of people who lost their homes, their businesses and in many cases, their loved ones. Cruise ships and fashion shows are, at best, irrelevant. It may seem exciting for American tourists to finally be able to ride a floating shopping mall right into Havana harbor.
And many Americans yearn for throwback experiences like the Copacabana nightclub. But it’s a delusion to believe that throngs of tourists will in any way help to promote political freedom. Visiting Cuba may seem suddenly adventurous to Americans, but the island already received 3.5 million tourists last year, mainly from Europe and Canada.
For some, it may appear romantic or avant-garde to hold radical chic fashion shows among the crumbling buildings of Havana. But these spectacles will make no difference to the lives of the average Cuban. Chanel’s goods are not sold in Cuba and, even if they were, 70 percent of the population works for the government on an average salary of $25 per month.
The pop stars, fashionistas, and mass tourism could even be counterproductive by providing the regime with the false appearance of normalcy and a financial lifeline for a bankrupt system. Without the usual donations from Venezuela, the Cuban economy is today deeply reliant on tourism. This is happening just as some of the modest economic improvements are actually being reversed.
At a secretive Communist Party congress last month, the government backtracked on market reforms in food distribution and pricing. The state still owns nearly 80 percent of arable land and is forced to import most of the nation’s food. Inflation is reportedly getting worse, but no one really knows since basic data collection is not allowed. That’s precisely because the Cuban government hopes a normal relationship with the United States will boost their sagging economy, without touching its closed political system.
Indeed, since President Obama’s historic visit, the Castro brothers have hardened their anti-U.S. rhetoric and insisted that, even if they will accept our tourists, they will not allow Washington to change Cuba. There’s the rub. If Americans think that tourism and trade will help to bring about capitalism and eventually political change, the Cubans believe the polar opposite: A flood of tourism dollars will be a lifeline for the regime to salvage communism.
All the cruise ships and celebrities may make good media headlines. But let’s not kid ourselves that glitz and glamor will do anything to unseat an aging dictator intent on keeping Cuba stuck in the past.
Todd Moss is Chief Operating Officer and Senior Fellow at the Washington think-tank The Center for Global Development.
Pericles’s speech exhorting Athenians during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) is perhaps the most celebrated oration in defense of democratic values ever given.
The Greek statesman defends Athenian patriotism, but also the universal values of tolerance, diversity, free trade, and the rule of law. He ends by reminding his countrymen that “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”
I have always been moved by this beautiful phrase, and I want to explore its wisdom in the more plebeian context of government spending.
My first point is seldom appreciated: any undertakings we ask of government requires that we surrender a measure of freedom. When we consent to being governed, we grant government the monopolistic use of coercive power in society. We give government the exclusive right to force us to behave in certain ways, or else…
"Happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”
When we give up the freedom to drive at 100 miles per hour in order to improve road safety, we have given up the freedom to drive as we please. By choosing safety over freedom, we have judiciously surrendered a degree of freedom. It is this logic of exchanging freedom for some valued government service that anchors our Western concept of legitimate government.
By definition, more government implies less freedom. And yet we misunderstand this logic and act as if more government services (i.e., a larger government) are always an enhancement to our lives. This is equivalent to stating that our lives are enriched by less freedom.
One measure of the size of government is government spending. Currently, national governments spend, on average, a yearly total of US$2,376 per citizen. In 2005, total government spending per person in the United States totaled US$14,847. By 2012, it had increased 31.2 percent to US$19,483, a significant reduction of freedom.
I have chosen these years to correspond with the available measure of happiness introduced below. By the logic that more government services equal happier lives, what did we get for this surrendering of freedom?
The World Happiness Report is a sophisticated new measure of how people around the world rate their overall satisfaction with life. The report is a comprehensive instrument that seeks to measure happiness by including variables such as GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom from corruption, generosity, and the freedom to make life choices.
When the World Happiness Report was first published, with data collected around 2005-07, the United States ranked as the 11th happiest country in the world. The latest report uses data collected around 2012-14 and shows the U.S. dropping to 15th place.
The United States was among the biggest losers of happiness, far more than would be expected from income losses due to macroeconomic changes. One of the reasons for the decline in happiness was a perceived loss of “freedom to make life choices.”
Clearly these data are not sufficient to offer a correlation, much less causation, between the growth of government and happiness. The best counter data are the Scandinavian countries, which report both high levels of happiness and government spending.
But the data does show that, despite surrendering a significant amount of freedom by allowing government spending to increase 31.2 percent in this period, our perceived happiness did not increase, but decreased. Perhaps the U.S. is just a case of bad management. The fact remains that we did not get much for our sacrifice of purse and freedom.
Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner offers an explanation:
"Decision making is what defines us as human. When a government decides for us, and imposes a way of life, patterns of conduct, and values, it robs us of happiness. This is what makes countries like Cuba unlivable.”
The lesson is that, in this election cycle, we should be skeptical of any offers to increase government spending under the guise of augmenting our well-being. Instead, we should have the courage to pursue our own happiness.
There is certainly a case for a government that protects our life, liberty, and property as foreseen by the Founding Fathers. There is no case for surrendering more freedom to buy a larger government.
As it turns out, larger government and happiness may be mutually exclusive because happiness depends on being free.
**Previously published in the PanAm Post on March 6, 2016.
*José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book Mañana in Cuba. Follow José Azel on Twitter @JoseAzel
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Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, by Jaime Suchlicki, provides a detailed and sophisticated understanding of the Cuba of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Mañana in Cuba, by Jose Azel, is a comprehensive analysis of contemporary Cuba with an incisive perspective of the Cuban frame of mind and its relevancy for Cuba's future.
Death of a Dream: History of Cuba Elusive Quest for Freedom, the twenty one chapters are explicitly historical, strongly analytical, concisely written and closely argued; the result is a brilliant narrative that spanned over five centuries of Cuba's history.
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