Secretary of State John Kerry deserves applause for saying that human rights will be a priority in the new diplomatic relationship between the United States and Cuba, but his decision not to invite Cuban dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana was, to put it mildly, disconcerting.
When I interviewed Kerry last week in Washington, two days before his trip to Cuba, he told me that "human rights obviously are at the top of our agenda, in terms of the first things that we will be focused on in our direct engagement with the Cuban government.” He told me it includes planning to discuss with Cuba "a sort of roadmap" toward "real, full" normalization in which final change will include the lifting of the U.S. embargo and steps with regard to the behavior of Cuba that will allow Cubans to be able "to engage in a democratic process." Kerry reiterated these themes in Havana, where he declared that "the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders.”
All of this sounds good, but the fact is that during his visit to Havana, Kerry didn't invite the Cuban dissidents to attend a key ceremony along with officials of the country. Instead, some peaceful opposition members were invited to a subsequent event later that same day, in the residence of one of the people in charge of the negotiations between the United States and Cuba in Havana.
When I asked Kerry in an interview why he wouldn't include the dissidents among the people invited to the U.S. embassy, the secretary minimized the importance of the decision. "Rather than have people sitting in a chair, at a ceremony that is fundamentally government-to-government, with very limited space, I will meet with them... and exchange views” separately, he told me.
But Republican critics and various human rights groups say that President Barrack Obama gave in to the Cuban regime, that he refused to participate in diplomatic events that help the oppressed in that country. In Cuba, the ruling military dictator prohibits independent political parties and considers all of the opposition to be mercenaries.
Some leaders of the opposition were invited to the gathering of opposition members but refused to attend. "We do not understand how the U.S. administration could accept the conditions of these dictators," said Antonio Gonzalez Rodiles, a leader of the dissidents that declined the invitation, on the website of El Diario of Cuba.
Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies of White, told me in a telephone interview that that the Obama administration maintains a "complacent silence" in regards to the human rights violations in Cuba.
Since the president of the United States announced the start of normalization talks on December 17, more than 3,000 political detainees have been registered in Cuba, according to human rights groups.
My opinion: Of all the things Kerry told me, the one thing that I totally agree with is that the old U.S. policy of isolating Cuba hasn't worked and it is time to try something new. That's why we were largely in agreement when Obama announced the initiation of normalization talks between the two countries and at the same time the continuation of pressure for democratic reforms. It's worth trying a policy approach of two paths, one of normalizing relations with Cuba and also supporting the human rights cause at the same time.
However, I question whether Obama’s Cuba policy has been converted into only one path. Kerry's trip to Havana didn't, at the very least, support a symbolic step forward for human rights and even left the opposition badly broken on the island.
Could it be possible that Obama was so eager to visit Cuba before the end of his term - to go down in history as the American president that "opened" Cuba, like Nixon "opened" China - that he is willing to sacrifice the cause of human rights? Could it be that he was so anxious for a foreign policy victory - given the difficulties in Syria, and even Iran - that he is willing to abandon a long U.S. policy of supporting the activists for democracy in that country?
Hopefully I'm wrong, but Kerry's trip to Cuba was the first big test of new policy from the United States toward Cuba and the Obama administration did not pass.
OPD 18 Aug 2015 – Edited by Ashley Pinamonti
NOTE TO PROOFREADER: This article has already been published in English at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article31146758.html. Please backdate and inform the translator.
Proof in progress HS