In a speech announcing the reestablishment of an American embassy in Havana, President Obama implored those in Congress who opposed his unilateral concessions to the communist Castro regime to “listen to the Cuban people” before taking a stance. Multiple reports citing Cuban nationals in Havana and throughout the island find that many are extremely apprehensive about the legitimacy a new embassy will give the Castro regime and are disappointed to see the United States support communist oppression.
“Contact between the two governments should never have been established behind the backs of the Cuban people,” says Félix Navarro Rodríguez, a Cuban national speaking to 14 y Medio, an independent publication run by dissident writer Yoani Sánchez. Navarro Rodríguez, who opposes the Castro regime and has said so publicly–a crime in Cuba–worries that law enforcement will be emboldened to silence dissidents now that it has the public backing of President Obama. “Dissidents will have many variables against them with this legislation,” he tells the newspaper, “like limitations to participate in events, use the Internet, or take classes that the Office of American Interests in Havana has traditionally offered.” For those who oppose communism, he concludes, “the situation will worsen.”
The more optimistic Cubans speaking to 14 y Medio say they expect nothing at all to change, except the potential to exploit the goodwill of naive American businessmen. “Maybe with this measure more yumas (Americans) will come here and, who knows, one of them will fall in love with my business and invest in its expansion,” says Yampier González Cuervo, who once owned a cafe in Havana.
Active dissident leaders have responded to the opening of a new embassy with dismay. “This won’t help us at all,” says Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White dissident group. The Ladies in White (“Damas de Blanco”) are the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of political prisoners still in captivity for their beliefs, who have experienced increased oppression since December, when President Obama announced the White House’s new embrace of the Cuban communist government. The Ladies in White, who attend Catholic Mass in the name of their imprisoned relatives every Sunday and are subsequently arrested en masse, were officially banned from wearing white and attending Mass by one church whose priest called them a distraction. This ban followed statements from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, that Cuba no longer holds prisoners of conscience, a statement for which there is absolutely no evidence. As credited by both Raúl Castro and President Obama, Pope Francis had a strong hand in the White House’s legitimization of the Cuban regime.
Soler told the Pan-American Post that she had spent the past 11 Sundays locked “in a dungeon” for the crime of attempting to participate in Catholic Mass. “We demand that violence against human rights activists cease, especially against women.” she said. “There have not yet been any statements from either government about this.”
“It is evident that this has turned personal between Obama and Castro, where the former intends to trudge on against wind and rain and Castro simply smiles before every gift,” said Karel Becerra, the head of the social organization Independent and Democratic Cuba, agreeing with Soler. Another dissident, Ovidio Martin Castellanos of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, expressed similar sentiments: “We see clearly how the Obama administration is trying to remedy things in Cuba, but the communist Castro dictatorship is only looking out for its own wellbeing. … There don’t seem to be any fundamental changes.”
Yoani Sánchez told a panel in Madrid this week that she is also concerned that the average apolitical Cuban who follows only state television will be expecting “magic solutions” to their poverty and lack of opportunity from the United States. Since December, she says, the average Cuban “has not gotten more food on their plate, nor more money in their pocket, nor more liberty on the streets.” On the latter point, it may well be the opposite; political arrests increased 70% between January and March 2015, following the White House thaw announcement.
While Cubans on the island express concern and fear over legitimizing a repressive communist autocracy, prominent Cuban Americans are condemning President Obama for working against their interests as naturalized American citizens and against their family in Cuba.
Yale Professor Carlos Eire, in a Washington Post column, calls President Obama’s diplomacy with Cuba “betrayal” of his Cuban American constituents, calling to attention not President Obama’s remarks following the embassy news, but Raúl Castro’s, whose statement vowed to use President Obama to build “a prosperous and sustainable socialism”:
Cubans have no freedom of speech or assembly. The press is tightly controlled, and there is no freedom to establish political parties or labor unions. Travel is strictly controlled, as is access to the Internet. There is no economic freedom and no elections. According to the Associated Press, at least 8,410 dissidents were detained in 2014.
These are the principles that Raúl Castro is unwilling to renounce, which have driven nearly 20 percent of Cuba’s population into exile.
Unfortunately, these are also the very principles that President Obama ratified as acceptable, which will govern Cuba for years to come.
Eire concludes his piece with hope that Congress will be able to block President Obama’s move against the Cuban people. Congress’s Cuban American contingent have been quick to prove him right, taking to the media to condemn the move. Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned that the move was not only dangerous for Cuban dissidents, who will now face emboldened state forces, but for American national security, as a Cuban embassy in Washington would be a hub of spy activity. The Republican representative vowed that “we are not going to confirm that ambassador” because “Cuba still harbors United States fugitives from justice [and] has not paid U.S. citizens billions of dollars in illegally confiscated property.” The Castro regime, she laments, “has gained a lot of legitimacy it did not earn.”
In a statement in response to President Obama’s remarks, Marco Rubio, also of Florida, made the same promise to block any nominee to be ambassador to Cuba:
It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President’s December 17th announcement in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime.