Thursday, May 21, 2015

Don't ignore signs of progress in Cuba

Voices: Don't ignore signs of progress in Cuba
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 1:19 p.m. EDT May 20, 2015

MIAMI — Cuban President Raúl Castro caused quite a stir at the Vatican
this month when the Communist leader said he was so impressed by Pope
Francis that he was considering returning to the Catholic Church.

In Cuban-American corners of the United States, many responded with the
same level of cynicism that accompanies any hint at political
liberalization from Castro. It was the same level of suspicion that
constantly hovered over his now-retired brother, Fidel, anytime he
cracked the door open to greater freedom on the island.

But let's consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Raúl Castro
is truly changing.

Just writing that sentence is going to get me in trouble. Some Cubans
who fled the Castro regime will call me naive, arguing that he is just
doing what he needs to do to maintain his tyrannical rule over the
island. Some Cubans who have remained will say they continue living in
poverty with little hope of improvement. Heck, I'm worried what my own
relatives are going to scream at me next time I see them.

I also understand why they refuse to trust the Castro brothers. My
parents were forced to flee Cuba in the early years of the Castros'
revolution, stripped of their homes, their clothes, just about
everything. I never met my grandfather because he spent 30 years as a
political prisoner, losing a foot in the prison's squalor and eventually
his life. I can't have a conversation with my relatives who remain on
the island without learning about some new injustice, some new roadblock
to bettering their lives.

Still, when I look at what's happened on the island since Raúl Castro
took over for his ailing brother in 2006, I can't help but see a sliver
of hope.

It was Raúl, after all, who first allowed Cubans to own microwaves,
cellphones and computers, no small feat in a country where those items
had long been restricted. It was Raúl who started breaking down the
basic Communist concept of communal property, allowing Cubans to own
homes, to buy and sell cars, to operate a Cuban version of eBay. He
eliminated the despised exit visa every Cuban had to get from the
government before traveling abroad.

Fidel spent years defending the state-run, centrally planned economy,
but Raúl has started changing that, too. There are now 500,000 private
entrepreneurs in Cuba working on their own, paying taxes and hiring

Political persecution remains, and the government continues imprisoning
dissidents who speak out against the regime. But there is also a
burgeoning class of independent writers and journalists who are openly
expressing their views of the government without constant trips to their
nearest jail.

Fidel would spend hours talking about the injustices rained upon his
island by the Yankee imperialists to the north. And while Raúl regularly
echoes those sentiments, he has now shaken President Obama's hand twice,
agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with the U.S. and released
two American prisoners as part of the historic deal. The two sides are
closing in on an agreement to reopen full embassies in Washington and
Havana, each country's flag flying out front.

Raúl has even opened the door to the island's long-dormant religious
sector. For decades, you had to practice your religion quietly. The
government has now allowed for the construction of the first church in
decades, Raúl has had his visit with Pope Francis, and the pope is
scheduled to visit the island in September.

None of that changes the fact that Cuba remains an insular government
controlled by a tiny elite. The idea of free and fair elections is
impossible in a country where only one political party — the Communist
Party — is allowed. The country still employs Committees for the Defense
of the Revolution, people living on each block whose sole job is to
watch, and report on, what their neighbors are doing.

There is no semblance of a fair judicial system, the vast majority of
people still have to rely on the government for work and sustenance, and
Cubans simply cannot band together and effect change on their government.

But when you consider that the U.S. works with foreign leaders who have
equally brutal records on a daily basis, I don't understand why we so
often view the Castros in pure black and white. We focus on their
selfish intentions but ignore how their recent actions are actually
changing the lives of the people of Cuba.

I'm not saying we should submit Raúl Castro's name for a Nobel Peace
Prize. I just think that now, as the debate over our relationship with
Cuba heats up as we approach full diplomatic status, it's time to start
taking an objective look at the changes he's making on the island and
welcome them.

Gomez, USA TODAY's Miami-based correspondent, writes frequently about Cuba.

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