History demonstrates that biology does not necessarily take care of totalitarian regimes that have enslaved entire peoples. The Soviet Union founded in 1917 did not implode until 1991, when three generations had passed through that brutal system and finally brought it down nonviolently.
Likewise, China has been gripped by Mao’s totalitarian regime for 66 years and shows no signs of liberalizing, quite the contrary. Maoism is being reintroduced in the education system, and the dictatorship is flexing its economic and political muscle around the world. Sadly the US policy of normalized relations, since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to China, has empowered the dictatorship more than the people.
When Chinese students rose up in 1989, demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption, the United States and much of the West paid lip service in their favor. While they were massacred, western nations privately assured the Chinese communist leadership that relations would not be effected, and business would carry on as usual.
Since then, Chinese nationals have been subjected to new totalitarian controls over there lives, with the help of US companies such as Google and Yahoo. Google, to be able to operate in China, censored its search engines. Yahoo went further and actively tracked down dissidents who had been sending out e-mails critical of the government, leading to their imprisonment and torture. A similar process has played out in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, it seems that on more than one occasion individuals of good will have confused a people with a particular party and a culture with a particular political ideology. This can be a slippery slope that ends up empowering and prolonging the life of a dictatorship, which is the antithesis of helping people.
In the current debate over engagement with Cuba, it is important to differentiate between Cubans and the dictatorship that oppresses them. Furthermore, if one wants to be a force for real and lasting change, then one should remember that truth, memory, and justice are necessary elements for a real and lasting national reconciliation that involves forgiveness.
Pope John Paul II understood firsthand what Cubans had suffered, and in his World Day of Peace message on January 1, 2002, he offered a solution to situations such as Cuba’s:
How do we restore the moral and social order subjected to such horrific violence? My reasoned conviction, confirmed in turn by biblical revelation, is that the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that combines justice with forgiveness.… But in the present circumstances, how can we speak of justice and forgiveness as the source and condition of peace? We can and we must, no matter how difficult this may be … In fact, true peace is “the work of justice.”
Holding the Castro regime accountable, denouncing new crimes, and pursuing justice is the work of peace and can be judged by its fruits. In the above cited speech, Pope John Paul II also observed that “the guilty must be correctly identified, since criminal culpability is always personal and cannot be extended to the nation.”
However, the Obama administration has pursued a policy of appeasement, that in practice has ignored the above council. Since 2009, they have given Castro a green light to murder several opposition leaders, including Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero (July 22, 2012), along with rising levels of repression.
The Carter Administration was the first to lift the travel ban and hold high-level negotiations with the Cuban dictatorship, and both sides opened Interest Sections in their respective capitals between 1977 and 1981. Then from 1981 to 1982, the Castro regime executed approximately 80 prisoners, which was a marked escalation when compared to 1976. Furthermore, during the Carter presidency, Fidel Castro took steps that resulted in the violent deaths of US citizens.
During the Mariel crisis of 1980, when over 125,000 Cubans sought to flee the island, the Cuban dictator sought to save face by selectively releasing approximately 12,000 violent criminals or individuals who were insane into the exodus. According to his bodyguard, “with the stroke of a pen,” Fidel Castro personally “designated which ones could go and which ones would stay. ‘Yes’ was for murderers and dangerous criminals; ‘no’ was for those who had attacked the revolution.”
In Latin America, this warming of relations coincided with the arrival of the Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua in 1979 and a widening civil war in Central America, all with Cuban backing.
The second to seek engagement was the Clinton administration in the 1990s, similarly coinciding with brutal massacres. That included 37 Cubans in the “13 de Marzo” tugboat sinking (1994) and the murder of four in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down (1996). Despite all of this, President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 and opened up cash-and-carry trade that formed a pro-Castro lobby in the United States. In Latin America, this warming of relations coincided with the arrival of Hugo Chavez to power in Venezuela in 1999 — with Cuban backing that has had negative consequences throughout the region.
People of good conscience must reject hatred and revenge while embracing justice and forgiveness. At the same time one must be careful not to become frustrated with the slow pace of change, and not to confuse helping an oppressed people with assisting a dictatorship. Otherwise, one could just be contributing to lengthening the life of the Castro regime and the suffering not only of Cubans but also of the peoples of neighboring countries, including the United States.