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Hawaiian Shirts and Mojitos Will Not Free Cuba

By: Vanessa Arita - @VeeArita - Oct 23, 2015, 10:14 am
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Despite the ongoing repression of citizens on the island, Cuba is set to become a new tourist destination for US residents. (Travel Blog)

EspañolFollowing renewed diplomatic relations with the United States this summer, we have seen Cuba reappear in news headlines across the globe. This was especially true after Pope Francis visited the island in September.

Cuban journalist Ninoska Pérez, however, believes these recent developments should not transform our image of Cuba. The island has been ruled by a dictatorship for 56 years, and that certainly hasn’t changed, she says.

Is Cuba freer today than before President Barack Obama changed US policies toward Cuba?

Absolutely not. Figures show a rise in the number of arrests, and government officials repress the Ladies in White and other activists every Sunday.

In September, we saw officials violently repress a young man who tried to approach Pope Francis during his visit. In fact, officials placed four people under arrest, on charges including an “attempted attack.” They didn’t make any attempts, other than to deliver a message. Ironically, as the officials dragged the young man away, he released flyers regarding the lack of freedom in Cuba — the message meant for the pope.

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Pérez contends that appeasement policies toward Cuba suggest there are no consequences for repressive regimes in the region. (Ninoska Pérez)

On October 8, dissidents held a demonstration at the Ministry of Justice, where they released flyers that read: “Down with the dictatorship! Long live human rights!” First, ministry personnel came out to clean up; then, another specialized unit took the flyers away wrapped in plastic, as if they were pollutants.

Essentially, the regime does regard the people’s courage to demand human rights and to condemn a dictatorship as poisonous.

Far from more freedom, what prevails is the interest to conduct business with the Cuban dictatorship.

Considering the 2016 US presidential candidates, what does the future hold for US-Cuba relations?

If Democrats come out ahead, we will see more of the same policies: giving in to demands without receiving anything in return. Important dailies such as the Washington Post and Miami Herald have issued editorials agreeing with me on this. This is not the time to lift the embargo. After witnessing these tendencies, I don’t think any Democrat could do anything to promote freedom in Cuba.

On the Republican side, however, there are several candidates who have shown they would adopt consistent policies toward the island, for example Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.

The United States isn’t the problem here, though; this country doesn’t need to change. What has to change is the Castro dictatorship, since they have been enthroned in power for 56 years.

What’s the current situation of dissidents in exile?

It is like in any other country with exiled groups. Since dissidents come from so many generations, one idea does not predominate over the other. What’s wonderful is that, even after 56 years, there are still groups fighting for a free Cuba. Some work through the US Congress; others disseminate information; others find ways to support dissidents in Cuba; and many take part in all three.

On September 28, dissidents gathered in New York City to protest the presence of Raúl Castro and the Cuban mission at the United Nations. They denounced the regime’s human-rights violations. This type of activity happens constantly, because the goal is to raise awareness.

People have to realize Raúl Castro is not a president; he was never elected into office. He has a sinister past; you can find images online that show him performing executions. It is well known that during the first week of the Revolution, he executed 70 people without trial. These are facts of history, not fabrications.

Raúl Castro is the head of the armed forces in Cuba; the same commander in chief who, when hosting a US congressman in Cuba, said: “Yes, I gave the order to shoot down the Brothers to the Rescue jets.” And this isn’t a provocation; we’re talking about US citizens who were shot down from international airspace. These are serious crimes.

Will the recent economic openness benefit Cubans?

Many would have you think this will benefit the population. I imagine one or two tourists coming in might help street vendors somewhat.

However, most large businesses on the island belong to the government. So any investor going to Cuba will conduct business with government-owned companies.

The tourism industry belongs entirely to the armed forces. So, perhaps a Cuban might rent out a room to a tourist, but this is nothing in comparison to what the ruling class or even tourists can do. It’s humiliating to think that a Cuban citizen doesn’t have the same opportunities to conduct business in their own country.

What impact would ending the embargo have on Cuba?

It would have an impact only for the Castro regime, not for the population. A regular Cuban does not have real purchasing power; the average monthly salary is US$20.

The embargo was never meant for the Cuban population; it was meant for the government. Cuba has been able to purchase from vendors all over the world. However, they have not been able to pay for those purchases, so doors have closed and purchases in general have declined by 40 percent.

What the regime is seeking at this time is credit to build up infrastructure for the tourism industry.

Is Cuban society prepared for the embargo to end?

Cuban society is prepared for anything.

I feel a bit outraged when people say: “Tourists will visit from the United States and Cubans will learn what freedom is.” I’m sorry, do you really think Cubans, who risk going to prison for demanding their rights, will learn about freedom from a US tourist wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding a mojito?

We all know what to do with freedom once we have it.

Asking whether a society is prepared kind of discredits them. Why does the United States work so well? And why do most Cubans coming into this country fare well? Because we automatically adapt: we all know what we have to do to succeed here, and, conversely, we know what will land us in prison.

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Do you think that President Obama is really interested in Cuba, or rather in affecting Maduro’s government?

First, we’re kind of giving President Obama too much credit by thinking he might have a strategy like this underway.

Obama is very naive when it comes to foreign affairs. One cannot focus on Venezuela and talk about sanctioning certain officials, while at the same time denying that Cuba has been behind the repression in Venezuela.

Restoring relations with Cuba under these circumstances — when everyone knows and the evidence is there — only leads to what is happening now: the Obama administration is holding meetings to accommodate Venezuela, without asking for anything in return.

This is because the region’s governments can see that under the Obama administration there are no consequences for repressive regimes.

Many say that Venezuela is becoming another Cuba. What similarities do you see between today’s Venezuela and Cuba in the 1960s?

The long lines that began in Cuba in the 1960s; the shortages; the control that officials are attempting to wield over citizens; the arrest of students while demonstrating; the fact that a man like Leopoldo López has been in prison for over two years; these things all happened in Cuba.

The difference is that repression in Cuba was much more aggressive, with daily executions and 20- and 30-year sentences pronounced on a daily basis.

Repression in Venezuela may be more subtle, but the similarities are there. There’s no other way for a state to achieve the control they have achieved over their citizens.

Is the Castro brand of socialism still in full vigor in Latin America?

Unfortunately, rather than socialism, it’s the Castro demagoguery that has prevailed. I find it disheartening when I see countries becoming dictatorships in the style of the Castro regime, with anti-US sentiment as the common denominator.

In the long run, the United States — with its many faults and virtues — is the most democratic country in this hemisphere.

It’s sad, because by using their recycled anti-US rhetoric, they impose socialism on the youth and effectively rob them from the possibility of choosing their own ideology.

Vanessa Arita Vanessa Arita

Vanessa Arita is a junior editor with the PanAm Post, a language enthusiast, and a graphic designer based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Follow @VeeArita.