What exactly is happening in Cuba? Every week, it seems, we read stories about economic reforms implemented by the Communist government. Cubans can now legally work as entrepreneurs in more than 180 different occupations, and they are no longer prohibited from selling their homes or motor vehicles, or from traveling abroad (provided they can secure a passport). Meanwhile, the number of state-sector jobs has declined significantly. In addition, Raúl Castro has promised that his current five-year term as Cuban president (which began in late February) will be his last, meaning he will retire in 2018.
Americans are always on the lookout for signs that Cuba is finally changing, and the changes listed above have prompted many journalists, analysts, and political figures to renew their calls for lifting or at least softening the U.S. embargo. After traveling to the island in mid-February as part of an official delegation of federal lawmakers, Democratic senator Pat Leahy of Vermont expressed his hope for a shift in U.S. policy: “There is a growing sense by many in the U.S. who do not have a Cold War attitude that they would like to see a change.”
But the biggest impediment to closer bilateral relations is not “a Cold War attitude” on Capitol Hill, nor is it the American embargo. It is the behavior of the Castro regime. Indeed, we should not let Havana’s timid economic reforms or its new travel policy distract us from the more important story: In its treatment of human-rights activists, pro-democracy dissidents, and pretty much anyone it considers a threat to Communist rule, the Cuban government is becoming more repressive, not less.
* During the first nine months of 2011, the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR) documented some 2,784 “incidents of human-rights abuses,” compared with 2,074 in all of 2010.
* In March 2012, Amnesty International reported that, since 2010, there had been “a steady increase in the number of arbitrary detentions,” with the Castro regime waging “a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents.” One of Amnesty’s Cuba researchers affirmed that “Cuba has seen worsening repression when it comes to human rights.”
* Over the next ten months, between March 2012 and January 2013, the number of political prisoners on the island doubled (from 45 to 90), according to the CCHRNR. Those figures only include prisoners jailed on explicitly political charges; the total number of Cuban political prisoners is much larger, since the regime is holding many dissidents on bogus criminal charges.
* In its latest Freedom in the World report, Freedom House says: “The Cuban government oversaw a systematic increase in short-term ‘preventative’ detentions of dissidents in 2012, in addition to harassment, beatings, acts of repudiation, and restrictions on foreign and domestic travel.”
* Overall, notes Miami Herald correspondent Juan Tamayo, Cuba witnessed “a record 6,200 short-term detentions for political motives” last year.
Then there is the story of Oswaldo Payá, a world-famous Cuban dissident and founder of the Varela Project who (along with fellow dissident Harold Cepero) died last July after a highly suspicious car accident. As Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady has written, Payá’s daughter, Rosa María Payá, believes that his car “was intentionally rammed from behind by another car,” and that her father’s death was “a probable murder.” In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Spanish politician Ángel Carromero, who was driving the car carrying Oswaldo Payá, said that they were rammed by a government vehicle whose occupants were “staring at [them] aggressively” before the collision. Carromero also said that, after the crash, he was drugged and threatened by Cuban authorities, who subsequently convicted him of manslaughter. (In December, Carromero was repatriated to Spain, and he has since been paroled.) Florida senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has urged the United Nations to launch “a thorough independent investigation of the events leading up to Payá’s death.”
The death of Payá and the broader campaign of repression against Cuban activists are troubling enough. But for U.S. officials hoping to abolish or ease sanctions, the elephant in the room is the ongoing detention of USAID contractor Alan Gross, a Maryland resident who has been held in a Cuban prison for more than three years on ridiculous espionage charges. It is hard to argue that Havana either deserves or desires warmer relations with Washington when it continues to hold an American hostage. Gross, who turns 64 in May, has seen his health deteriorate, and has reportedly lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration.
His only “crime” was to help boost Internet access for Cuba’s tiny Jewish community. But the Castro regime fears greater Internet access because it fears losing its monopoly on information. It fears that Cubans will become more willing to challenge the status quo and demand real reforms. And, indeed, that is exactly what’s been happening. As dissident-blogger Yoani Sánchez told the Post last month, “People are losing their fear, moving from silent to open, from wearing a mask to showing their real face in public.” Havana’s growing concern over political unrest explains the imprisonment of Gross, and the crackdown on the Ladies in White, and the harassment of activists across the island.
Simply put: Cuba is becoming more repressive because the dictatorship is increasingly afraid of a homegrown democracy movement. That would seem to be a much bigger story than a few cosmetic economic reforms designed to keep the regime in power.
Appearing last month on Spanish television, Rosa María Payá said that Raúl’s reforms are mainly a PR stunt, and not a serious attempt to improve human rights. They “are designed to win over international public opinion,” she said. “The conditions Cubans live in has not changed.” If the Castro regime is truly serious about reform and liberalization, Payá added, it will allow a nationwide referendum on democracy — the type of referendum called for by her father’s Varela Project. The government’s refusal to hold such a referendum shows just how little Cuba has actually changed.
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