The Time to Help Cuba's Brave Dissidents Is Now: Why the Embargo Must Not be Lifted

The presence this week in the United States of dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, the most well-known of Cuba’s brave dissident community, has again brought to the forefront the reality of the situation facing the Cuban people in the Castro brothers’ prison state.

Last week, Sanchez spoke at both Columbia University and New York University, where she recalled how different things were a decade ago during what Cubans refer to as the “Black Spring,” when independent journalists were given a summary trial and large jail sentences. It was the arrest of these opponents of the regime that led to the Ladies in White, the wives and mothers of prisoners who regularly marched in silence in front of government buildings each week.

Ten years ago, Sanchez pointed out, there was no access to the internet for anyone in Cuba, it barely existed, and there were no flash drives to record information and no social networking sites to spread the word about the state’s repression. Now, bloggers like Sanchez -- who gains access to tourist hotels, posing as a Westerner so she can use their internet facilities -- have managed to get past the regime’s ban on use of the internet and to freely reveal to the world the reality of life in Cuba.

"Many independent journalists and peaceful activists who began their work precariously have now resorted to blogs, for example, as a format to circulate information about programs and initiatives to collect signatures,” Sánchez said. She and others have done just that, getting signatures on petitions to demand the release in particular of one well-known Cuban journalist. In addition, Sanchez is circulating a petition known as “the Citizens’ Demand” to pressure the Cuban regime to ratify the UN political rights agreements signed in 2008. The signers are calling for a legal and political framework for a full debate of all ideas relevant to the internal crisis facing the Cuban people on the island.

In effect, this demand for democracy is nothing less than a call for creation of a political democracy that would, if implemented, lead to the collapse of the edifice of the Communist one-party state.

As Sanchez put it: “It is important to have initiatives for transforming the law and demand concrete public spaces within the country.” Since a totalitarian state does not allow for such space and prohibits a real civil society from emerging, the actions of the dissidents are a mechanism for forcing such change from below. They are fighting what her fellow blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo called a “culture of fear over the civil society” that the secret police seek to enforce.

For liberals and leftists in the United States, the main demand they always raise is to “lift the embargo.” According to the argument they regularly make, the embargo has to be lifted for the following reasons: 1) it is not effective; 2) it gives the regime the excuse to argue to the Cuban people that the poverty they suffer is the result of not being able to trade with the United States and other nations honoring the embargo; 3) lifting the embargo would hence deprive Fidel and Raul Castro from their main propaganda argument, revealing that the reasons for a collapsed economy are the regime’s own policies; and 4) trade and travel from the United States would expose Cubans to Americans and others who live in freedom, help curb anti-Americanism, and eventually lead to slow reform of the system.

What these liberals and leftists leave out is that this demand -- lifting the embargo -- is also the number one desire of the Cuban Communists.

In making it the key demand, these well-meaning (at least some of them) liberals echo precisely the propaganda of the Cuban government, thereby doing the Castro brothers' work for them here in the United States. And, as we know, many of those who call for this actually believe that the Cuban government is on the side of the people, and favor the Cuban Revolution which they see as a positive role model for the region. They have always believed, since the 1960s of their youth, that socialism in Cuba has pointed the way forward to development and liberty based on the kind of socialist society they wish could exist in the United States.

Another brave group of Cuban opponents of the regime has actually taped a television interview filmed illegally in Havana. “Young Cuban democracy leader Antonio Rodiles,” an American support group called Capitol Hill Cubans has reported, “has just released the latest episode of his civil society project Estado de Sats (filmed within Cuba), where he discusses the importance U.S. sanctions policy with two of Cuba's most renowned opposition activists and former political prisoners, Guillermo Fariñas and Jose Daniel Ferrer.”

The argument they present is aimed directly at those on the left in the United States, some of whom think they are helping democracy in Cuba by calling for an end to the embargo. In strong and clear language, the two dissidents say the following:

If at this time, the [economic] need of the Cuban government is satisfied through financial credits and the lifting of the embargo, repression would increase, it would allow for a continuation of the Castro's society, totalitarianism would strengthen its hold and philosophically, it would just be immoral ... If you did an opinion poll among Cuban opposition activists, the majority would be in favor of not lifting the embargo.

Next, they nail the claim that travel without restrictions by citizens of our country to Cuba would help spread freedom. The men respond:

In a cost-benefit analysis, travel to Cuba by Americans would be of greatest benefit to the Castro regime, while the Cuban people would be the least to benefit. With all of the controls and the totalitarian system of the government, it would be perfectly able to control such travel.

We know this, as I reported a few months ago, about how a group of Americans taking the usual state-controlled Potemkin village tour came back raving about how wonderful and free Cuba is, and how Cuban socialism works.

Finally, the two former prisoners made this point about lifting the embargo:

To lift the embargo at this time would be very prejudicial to us. The government prioritizes all of the institutions that guarantee its hold on power. The regime's political police and its jailers receive a much higher salary and privileges than a doctor or engineer, or than any other worker that benefits society. We've all seen municipalities with no fuel for an ambulance, yet with 10, 15, 20, 50 cars full of fuel ready to go repress peaceful human rights activists.

Indeed, just this past week, more evidence came out substantiating how the secret police killed Cuba’s leading political opponent Oswaldo Paya, and sought to blame it on a car crash for which he and those with him were responsible. Last week, the Washington Post in a tough editorial made the point:

Mr. Payá, who pioneered the Varela Project, a petition drive in 2002 seeking the guarantee of political freedom in Cuba, was killed in a car wreck July 22, along with a youth activist, Harold Cepero. The driver of the vehicle, Ángel Carromero, a Spaniard, was convicted and imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide; in December, he was released to Spain. He told us in an interview published on the opposite page last week that the car carrying Mr. Payá was rammed from behind by a vehicle with government license plates. His recollections suggest that Mr. Payá died not from reckless driving but from a purposeful attempt to silence him -- forever.

This is the kind of treatment effective opponents of the regime get from Cuba’s secret police, measures taken upon orders of Raul Castro, whom useful idiots like Danny Glover and Sean Penn regularly visit. They fawn at his feet and those of his ailing brother, Fidel Castro.

This week, Sanchez and her colleague come to testify before Congress. They will speak as well at a public forum today, Tuesday, at the Cato Institute. You can watch on a live stream at 12:30 p.m. on the organization’s website.

The Cuban people have suffered long enough at the hands of a regime that came into power promising freedom and democracy, and instead inflicted on the Cuban people a totalitarian government modeled on that of the old Soviet Union. Cuba is finally on the verge of change, and it is time the people of our country give whatever support we can to those within Cuba bravely working for the creation of a real democracy in Cuba, and an end to the decades of rule by the Castro brothers.