Is Obama really helping Cuban dissidents?

Just hours before Obama arrived in Cuba March 20 for the historic first visit by a US president since the 1959 revolution, a pro-democracy march was broken up in Havana, with over 50 detained. (Havana Times) Among those arrested was the famous activist graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, nicknamed "El Sexto," who according to the New York Times had increased pressure on the regime to open democratic space in the preceding days by streaming live broadcasts from the newly unveiled wifi spots around Havana. Activists whose hopes had been raised both by reconciliation with the US and the regime's recent moves to allow greater Internet access were disappointed by the repression. "We thought there would be a truce, but it wasn't to be," Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the NY Times.

Sánchez was formerly associated with the Democratic Socialist Current, a leftist pro-democracy initiative that purported to reject the ossified political establishments of both the Havana regime and the Miami right-wing exile machine. A breakdown provided by the Los Angeles Times indicates that he was among those who met with Obama on March 22 at the newly re-inaugurated US embassy in Havana. Others in attendance were representatives of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco); Guillermo "El Coco" Farinas, a journalist who has held numerous hunger strikes to press for greater political freedoms; Afro-Cuban activists including Manuel Cuesta Morua, attorney Laritza Diversent and Nelson Alvarez Matute, who also advocates for gay rights; and Yunier Angel Remon, a rapper who has spent time in prison for his lyrics and activism.

Notably absent was the famous Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, who stated that she was covering Obama's visit as a journalist not a participant. 

Activists are keeping the pressure up. The day after Obama's departure, several opposition figures delivered 10,000 signatures to Cuba's National Assembly collected in support of the "Varela Project"—a pro-democracy statement launched by the late dissident Oswaldo Payá. (Translating Cuba, March 24)

But Obama is certainly an equivocal figure to press Cuba on greater democracy. In his public appearance with President Raúl Castro, Obama famously put his Cuban counterpart on the spot over political prisoners. (The Hill, March 21) There is an obvious irony to this when one of the outstanding issues between the US and Havana is the Guantánamo naval base—where the Pentagon continues to run its notorious detainment camp. The US Treasury still sends Havana a check every year for $4,080 for use of the base—a payment unchanged over the history of the lease that began in 1903 (when the island was under US military occupation) and made open-ended in 1934. Since the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government has refused to cash the checks, viewing the lease as illegitimate. (NPR, March 21; NPR, Feb. 25)

We noted this dilemma when Obama first announced his rapprochement with Cuba a year ago. Seizing on Obama's opening to press demands for greater freedom allows activists to be more easily painted by the regime as pawns of imperialism. But are Cubans not supposed to press for political freedoms now because the US is seeking rapprochement with the regime?

Cuba: dissidents still wait for political opening

One year after Obama's historic visit to Cuba, there is little sign that pressure has lifted much for the island's dissidents. On March 8, National Revolutionary Police troops raided the Santiago headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), arresting eight. The arrests, the latest in an ongoing crackdown on the group, bring to 54 the number of UNPACU followers held in Cuba's prisons. (PanAm Post, March 9)

Last month, Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro was refused a visa to enter Cuba to receive a democracy award named in honor of the late dissident Oswaldo Payá. The award was to be issued by the Latin America organization Jóvenes por la Democracia (Youth for Democracy), headed by Payá’s daughter Rosa María Payá, to thank Almagro for speaking out on behalf of Cuban dissidents. The regime said it had foiled a plot to destabilize the country by blocking Almagro's visit, and called Jóvenes por la Democracia "anti-Cuban and illegal." (Reuters, Feb. 23; Miami Herald, Feb. 22)

Almagro, a former Uruguayan cabinet minister under leftist president José Mujica, was having none of it. He said that "the ceremony which I had been invited to in Havana, is no different to other similar events I have participated in in other countries within the region, which take place without the government supporting them, without censorship, because this is part of tolerance and democratic values." (Havana Times, March 6)

Rosa María Payá has meanwhile requested that Havana's Ministry of Justice review the case of her father’s death. (PanAm Post, March 1)