The announcements by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro on the reopening of diplomatic relations between their two nations have hardly received universal welcome from opponents of the Castro regime.
Minutes after the historic agreement on Wednesday, December 17, that opened a new chapter in US-Cuba relations, a group of angry Cuban exiles came out to protest the decision in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
Through banners, signs, and in interviews with several television networks, protesters made their views heard about the the White House’s new stance. Some said that the exchange of prisoners was unequal and favored the Cuban regime, arguing that the imprisoned Cubans were convicted for confirmed offences, while USAID contractor Alan Gross — jailed for five years after distributing communications equipment to a remote Jewish community on the island — had committed no crime.
Nevertheless, there was debate among the assembled Cuban community. Also present were those who supported the measures taken by Obama, seeing them as a positive step which could stimulate broader changes in Cuba and help those families still living on the Caribbean island.
Havana Cries Out for Reform
Over in Havana, after a televised announcement by Raúl Castro, Cubans were able to watch some of the declarations made by Barack Obama in Washington. Independent Cuban journalist Luis Alberto Diéguez told the PanAm Post that Obama’s speech wasn’t transmitted in its entirety, with national television not screening the US premier’s announcements about freeing up commerce, telecommunications and Cuba-US travel. Nor did Cuban TV sets broadcast the news that the two countries are to exchange embassies, Diéguez said.
The journalist revealed that internet services in the capital ceased to function after Castro’s broadcast, preventing citizens from finding out more about the agreements.
Joisy García, director of the Cuban Anarcho-Capitalist Club, said that Cubans had largely received the news of the return of the three Cuban spies from the US in silence. Radical supporters of the regime, however, were shocked at the news, and reluctant to applaud better relations with the “enemy” country, García reported.
The liberal activist himself stated that Obama was effectively rewarding the Castro brothers, arguing that the US president had given them a “crutch” to continue with their oppressive regime.
García was recently jailed between December 8 and 10 after being denounced by several of his neighbours, members of the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). “When they came to take me prisoner, they arrived in expensive cars and motorbikes. It costs money to punish people,” he joked.
Daisy Coello, of activist organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), described the diplomatic deal as a “lie,” arguing that “there can never be a healthy relationship with the US while the Cuban government continues to oppress its people, like it did with us.”
Coello, a housewife, can’t find work because she belongs the opposition group, a situation shared by her daughter and sister. She stated that the economic reforms seen on the island up until now have only benefited the government, which has levied high taxes on workers. In this line, she argued that the arrival of US capital would only benefit the governing elite, which continues to control the greater part of Cuba’s economy.
Nevertheless, opinion is divided among the opposition to the regime. Diéguez, for example, is positive about the transformations that could accompany the opening of an US embassy on the island and greater inflows of foreign investment. However, he argued that these changes will only have a significant impact if the Cuban government doesn’t create new tax or customs restrictions on tourism or business, which would redirect any benefits away from citizens. In conversation with the PanAm Post, he argued that the regime must first begin with scrapping the dual currency system that currently operates on the island.
Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban journalist and blogger, suggested that the regime would be the chief beneficiary of ongoing changes. “Does the Cuban government plan further moves to return to a position of strength over the United States?” he asked in an editorial with the independent newspaper 14yMedio. “A tired population senses that Castrismo will again win the latest round.”
Democrats and Republicans Divided
In the United States, Republican senator for Florida Marco Rubio announced that he would do everything in his power to block moves towards normalizing relations with Cuba.
In a press conference, the senator indicated that he would use his position on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to delay the activities announced by the President, which he judged to be a gift to the Castro regime.
— Senator Rubio Press (@SenRubioPress) December 17, 2014
For Rubio, the loosening of the economic embargo of the island would do little to bring greater liberty to the island. He asserted that the changes would result in “no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization, there will be no elections, no democratic opening, nothing. Zero.”
His fellow GOP congressman John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, echoed Rubio’s sentiments. “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner,” Boehner argued, suggesting that Obama’s decision would “embolden state sponsors of terrorism” around the world.
Despite Republican criticism, Obama was backed by the leader of the Democratic majority in the upper chamber, Senator Harry Reid.
“I support President Obama’s decision for the United States to start a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba,” the Arizona senator said in a statement. Although he remained “concerned about human rights and political freedom inside Cuba,” Reid gave his support to “moving forward toward a new path with Cuba.”
Obama was also backed by Democrat senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Jim McGovern, who was there to meet Gross upon his arrival from Cuba.
“The changes announced today by President Obama open the way for a more mature and productive relationship between our nations,” the congressman said in a statement. McGovern has been joined by representatives such as Pat Leahy (Vermont), Jeff Flake (Arizona), Carl Levin (Michigan), and Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) in calling for greater flexibility in trade and travel restrictions with the Caribbean nation.
Long-Term Prospects for Freedom
Daniel Calingaert, vice-president of think-tank Freedom House, argued that the re-establishment of diplomatic relations would only have a long-term effect if Cuba’s neighbor to the north pressured the island to begin political reforms, including greater protection for human rights and democratic participation.
— Freedom House (@FreedomHouseDC) December 17, 2014
For Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban analyst and commentator, the improvement of Cuba’s economic situation will serve to reinforce the Cuban government’s argument that the 54-year embargo is to blame for the island’s severe economic difficulties.
Montaner signalled his fears that the regime could benefit from the diplomatic breakthrough. “I think that what the Cuban government wants to do is preserve all control and authority within their hands, without making any political concessions or allowing liberties that have been denied up until now,” the analyst told CNN en Español on Wednesday.
“They’ve got their own entire version of history and politics to justify their position, and they’re going to keep repeating it,” he added.
Adriana Peralta and Sabrina Martín contributed to this article. Translated by Laurie Blair.