It's time for Kerry to engage with Cuban dissidents
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
If Secretary of State John Kerry is serious when he claims that the
Obama Administration will keep pressing for democracy and human rights
in Cuba, this is the least he should do: invite Cuban dissidents to the
flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana when he travels for
the historic event there on Aug. 14.
It sounds like a trivial gesture, but it's not. Cuba's dictatorship —
yes, even those of us who don't oppose the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuban
diplomatic ties must call it for what it is — refuses to have direct
contact or even participate in events attended by peaceful oppositionists.
Anybody in Cuba who dares to organize with others to demand free
elections or freedom of speech is considered a "U.S. mercenary," and is
officially treated as a non-person. When foreign embassies celebrate
their national holidays and decide to invite dissidents, the Castro
regime sends pro-government artists or state-salaried "intellectuals,"
but no government officials.
For the Obama administration, inviting Cuban dissidents such as the
Ladies in White or other well-known peaceful opponents to the Aug. 14
U.S. flag-raising at the embassy in Havana — scheduled to be attended by
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez — would be proof that it's not
bluffing when it says that it will maintain its commitment to democracy
and human rights in Cuba.
It would also be a way for Obama to correct the mistake he made in
breaking a longstanding U.S. promise to peaceful opponents that
Washington would not make a deal with the Cuban regime without
consulting with them. Cuba's opposition was caught by surprise by
Obama's Dec. 17 announcement of the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks, and
lost political clout internally by not being able to claim even a minor
role in their outcome.
In a telephone interview from Cuba, well-known Cuban dissident Guillermo
Fariñas told me that, so far, neither he nor any fellow peaceful
opponent he knows has been invited to the Aug. 14 ceremony. If Kerry
invites dissidents, it would be the first time in his memory that the
Cuban government and opponents would mingle in a social event, he said.
"It would be a step forward," Fariñas told me. "The U.S. government
would send a signal that despite the fact that they didn't take into
account the opinion of most oppositionists when they negotiated this,
they still support Cuban democrats and democracy."
He added, "and if Cuban officials don't attend, the whole world will
know which side is the intolerant side."
Some Cuban dissidents have a bad feeling about the timing of Kerry's
trip because it coincides with a long-scheduled Aug. 12-18 summit of
Cuba's internal opposition and Cuban exiles in Puerto Rico, which will
be attended by most dissident leaders, including Fariñas. The U.S. State
Department knew about the Puerto Rico meeting long ago because it helped
the Cuban dissidents get U.S. visas to attend it, they say.
Could it be that Kerry timed his visit to Cuba so as not to coincide
with Cuba's internal opposition leaders, and avoid an early
confrontation with the Cuban regime that could spoil his diplomatic
fiesta, some dissidents ask. Others say Kerry has no excuse not to
invite oppositionists, because there are 11 members of the peaceful
opposition - including Oscar Elias Biscet and Marta Beatriz Roque - who
are barred from traveling abroad, and will thus be on the island that day.
Asked whether Kerry will invite dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony
in Havana, a State Department spokeswoman emailed me that "we are
working on the itinerary for the Secretary's trip... and we have not yet
determined the lists of invitees for the different possible events."
My opinion: Not inviting the dissidents to the main ceremony would be a
major mistake, and it would make a travesty of Obama's stated commitment
to continue pressing for fundamental freedoms in Cuba.
Obama has often said — rightly — that after five decades of a U.S.
policy of confrontation that hasn't worked, it's time to try something
new, and engage with the Cuban regime. But he has always added that the
new engagement with Cuba "will include continued strong support for
improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms."
Well, the first part of his plan has already been carried out, and he
has already engaged with the Cuban dictatorship. Now, it's time to
engage — or re-engage — with Cuba's peaceful opposition.
Source: Andres Oppenheimer: It's time for Kerry to engage with Cuban
dissidents | Miami Herald -