On Jan. 8, the Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama “may travel to Cuba as early as this spring if he feels the rights situation here is improving and a presidential trip will help.”
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 normalization.
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?” Nat asked him.
Guevara didn’t wait for the interpreter. He burst out laughing. In between his amused chortles, he managed to respond, “Aqui? In Cuba?”