The Cruelty of Being Voiceless on Freedom

The behavioral despair test to highlights the cruelty we induce when we introduce false hope in human expectations, as Obama did in Cuba.

Photo credit: yoshiffles on Best Running / CC BY-ND

By José Azel | [email protected]


The “behavioral despair test” is a clinical protocol often used to measure the effectiveness of antidepressants under development.

One variation of the despair test goes something like this: Rats are placed inside a glass tube filled with water where the rats struggle unsuccessfully to climb out of the tube. Typically, after fifteen minutes, the rats give up and become lethargic just floating in the water waiting for the inevitable drowning.

The experiment is repeated with other rats but this time, after fourteen minutes, just before the rats go into their lethargic despair, they are pulled out of the water. These rats that are saved from despair are then dried, fed and allowed to rest before being put back in the water. This second time the rats struggle longer, typically twenty minutes, before giving up in despair.

Scientist explain that for these rats, the memory of past success, when they were pulled out of the water, triggers some biochemical mechanisms that give the rats “hope” and thus they struggle longer before succumbing.

Arguably, rats do not experience hope or despair, and any anthropomorphic implications are subjective, but I bring up the behavioral despair test to highlight the cruelty we induce when we introduce false hope in human expectations.

Such false hopes were introduced in the U.S.-Cuba policy debate by President Obama and his supporters with the President’s visit to Cuba in 2016.  The reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Castro regime raised hopes in that tragic Island that a rapprochement with the United States would bring about economic prosperity and some degree of political freedom. Neither prosperity nor freedom has followed, and the Cuban population is again succumbing in despair.

But, why blame the Obama Administration for trying a new approach?  After all, the policy of isolating the Castro regime had not been successful in promoting freedom for the Cuban people. The problem was that the change in policy was accompanied by a reluctance to give voice to the demands for freedom in Cuba. It signified a tacit acceptance of the despotic Cuban regime. Supporters of the engagement policy restrained themselves from saying or doing anything that would upset the Castro government.

It is not a question of how the United States should formulate its foreign policy, but of whether we give voice to the aspiration for freedom, or we elect to be voiceless. Peoples do not choose to tyrannize themselves. Being silent on the human desire for freedom is an act of cruelty.

The legitimation of the Castro regime brought about by the Obama’s Administration did harm to Cuban aspirations for freedom. It failed to acknowledge that without political rights economic changes lack a lasting foundation. Similar to what the rat subjects experience in the “behavioral despair test,” such changes are not rights, but subjects the participant to manipulations by the experimenter, or in this case by the Cuban government.

As a new leadership generation emerges in Cuba, it is necessary to reestablish the necessity of freedom for human happiness.  For the Cuban people, the answer to their lethargic despair is not some form of Castro-light governance where they can struggle unsuccessfully a little longer in a new experimental glass tube.  They can only climb out of their communitarian experiment once there is a citizenry free to exercise its political and economic rights.

For Cuba it will be a perilous transition. Democracy demands far more virtue from its citizens than a totalitarian regime. In top-down governance the citizenry’s desire to act according to its desires is restricted by fear or force. In a democracy, where authority originates with the people, the only restriction is the people’s willingness to submit to public authority.

As the Founding Fathers argued during the establishment of the United States; without virtue and self-sacrifice, republics fall apart. Or as Alexander Hamilton put it: “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few they will oppress the many.”  Thus, national success hinges on our defense of self-determination. We should never be voiceless on freedom.


Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”


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