Havana — I’ve visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.
Contrary to popular conception, traveling to Cuba as an American was not difficult before President Barack Obama’s announcement last December of “the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years.” All anyone had to do was transit through a third country and not disclose his visit to Cuba upon reentering through U.S. customs. It was the aura of the embargo that dissuaded Americans. Moreover, there have long been myriad legal exceptions for Americans to travel to Cuba: They merely had to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under one of twelve broad, rather vague, permitted categories, such as “educational” and “research.” “Tourism” as such was and remains prohibited. But since January, travelers to Cuba need not obtain any OFAC license at all. This essentially means that any American who wants to venture to Cuba, including those who plan to do nothing but sit on the beach all day and dance salsa all night, are now free to do so.
The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation. Preventing anything that may pose a threat to its continued existence — any material that might germinate the seed of independent thought within an individual Cuban’s mind — from making its way onto the island is therefore a priority. In light of the increased number of tourists visiting Cuba since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on American travel, a number that is expected only to grow with time, the Castro regime has had to beef up its capabilities in this field. But judging from the headlines of the Cuban Communist-party newspaper, Granma, which boasted of the dramatic rise in tourism on a recent cover of its weekly English edition, Havana doesn’t seem to mind.
The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation.
Some four months after President Barack Obama made his announcement, I visited Cuba, wanting to find out what its democratic dissidents had to say about the new winds from Washington. Given the course of American foreign policy over the past six years, which has seen Washington “reset” relations with a variety of implacably hostile regimes, the proclamation of a new policy toward Cuba was hardly surprising. Obama had signaled his intention to effect such a transformation as early as the 2008 presidential campaign, when he vowed to negotiate directly with a host of American adversaries and declared that “we’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change it.” Though Cuba-watchers assumed a shift of some sort was coming, the way in which the new policy came about and its list of particulars took many by surprise.
Obama’s December 17 declaration followed 18 months of secret negotiations between the president and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, who took the reins of power after his older brother Fidel fell ill in 2008. Even senior State Department officials involved in Latin American affairs were kept in the dark about the negotiations, which were led by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in his mid 30s with no official diplomatic experience but who does possess an MFA in creative writing from New York University. This was the man Obama put in charge of negotiations with Cold War–hardened Cuban Communist apparatchiks, and it shows.
In exchange for the release of Alan Gross, an elderly USAID contractor arrested and accused of espionage in 2009, the United States released the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five,” a posse of spies sent to infiltrate the Miami Cuban-exile community in the late 1990s. Washington insisted that Gross was not a spy, and so in order to avoid tying his release to the freeing of the Cuban agents, Havana agreed to deliver a longtime American-intelligence asset it had imprisoned. Gross’s release from a prison sentence he ought never to have served in the first place and that nearly killed him was officially presented as an unrelated act of goodwill.
This swap of prisoners was the only part of Obama’s rapprochement in which Havana had to reciprocate, and lopsidedly at that. Moreover, it was just a prelude to the real meat of the Obama announcement: a loosening of the trade and travel restrictions America has imposed on Cuba, a collection of measures enforced through six statutes colloquially known as the “embargo.” The relaxed travel policies, the pending opening of embassies, the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, the restoration of limited economic activity — all longtime goals of the Cuban regime — were declared without any corresponding demands that Havana change its conduct. Indeed, in his speech announcing the new Cuba policy, Obama essentially admitted that he would have ushered in these unilateral changes much earlier had it not been for the “obstacle” that the imprisonment of an American citizen presented to his grand plans. To fend off accusations that it was giving away something for nothing, the administration claimed that the regime would release 53 political prisoners identified on a State Department list. In January, after weeks of saying it would not publicize the list, State provided the names to select members of Congress, revealing that some of the individuals had been freed before December 17, others were close to finishing their sentences, and a few had already been rearrested. Indeed, in Cuba, as in all authoritarian societies, the door to prison is a revolving one. In March, 610 people were arrested on political charges.
Not only were American diplomats with expertise in the region excluded from the negotiations (the better to prevent them from leaking against a policy shift some of them might have considered ill advised), so were many of the island’s political dissidents and independent journalists. “I can’t understand why they didn’t ask for preconditions,” Antonio Rodiles says of America’s negotiating posture.
I spoke with the American-educated political activist at his home. As with most of the meetings I had with dissidents, I showed up at his front door unannounced in the evening. Planning appointments in advance is logistically difficult and inadvisable security-wise. Internet access is extremely limited (Cuba has the lowest ratio of computers to inhabitants in the Western hemisphere) and is available almost exclusively in hotels and embassies. At a price of about $4.50 per hour, it is far beyond the means of most Cubans. Arranging meetings beforehand by phone, meanwhile, attracts the attention of the security police, who are presumed to listen to everything. Rodiles did not seem at all surprised that an American journalist would visit him at 10 p.m.; late-night knocks on the door (from foreign well-wishers or worse) seem to be a regular occurrence.
It’s not only the Cuban security services that monitor dissidents; nearly all of Cuban society is primed to serve as the regime’s eyes and ears through the proliferation of local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Established by Castro in 1960 shortly after he took power, they are dubbed the “civil rearguard for the vanguard of the militias . . . in the struggle against the internal and external enemy.” Combining elements of both the Gestapo and the Stasi (children are encouraged to report on their parents if they see anything suspicious, and neighbors are expected to rat out friends who might be planning an escape), CDRs exist on literally every block across the country (over 8 million of Cuba’s 11 million citizens are members) and monitor the activities of each and every individual in a neighborhood. The CDR emblem could not be more blatant: a cartoon Cyclops with a giant eye raising a sword above his head. Initially, Castro praised his cederistas, as committee members are known, as “1 million gags” for their ability to silence regime opponents, whom he ritually describes as subhuman. “It is impossible that the worms and parasites can make their moves if, on their own, the people . . . keep an eye on them,” he has declared. One sees CDR signs on all types of buildings across the country.
Nearly all of Cuban society is primed to serve as the regime’s eyes and ears through the proliferation of local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
Cuban dissidents are used to receiving guests and know that they’re being watched, and I was generously welcomed by the Cubans I met. The one exception was a young activist who was obviously afraid when I showed up at his door on a Sunday evening. He politely made it clear that he wished for me to leave his home immediately. He had somewhere to be, he said, an assertion that, judging by my finding him shirtless on the couch watching television, was highly unlikely. But it was his home I had entered, and his life he was risking, and so I didn’t protest.
Rodiles studied physics and mathematics at Florida State University in Tallahassee yet ultimately decided to return to his homeland to fight for democracy. He is the main coordinator of a civil-society group composed of writers, artists, and other professionals called “Citizen Demand for Another Cuba,” aimed at persuading the Cuban government to ratify a series of United Nations covenants on human rights. “They just started negotiating,” he says of the American government in a bewildered tone. “They didn’t involve the Cubans from outside or here inside, and I didn’t understand why they did it that way. If they really want a change they’re going to see that nothing’s going to change.”
Rodiles takes inspiration from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which inspired the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia and other human-rights groups to form behind the Iron Curtain. That accord, at least officially, committed the Soviet Union and its satellites to respect human rights, and it provided dissidents such as Václav Havel and Lech Walesa a public benchmark by which to hold the Communist regimes to account. Genuine political change in Cuba would require constitutional reform, as the Cuban constitution permits individual freedom only insofar as such liberties don’t threaten the Communist party as “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Wilfredo Vallin, a leader of the non-governmental Cuban Law Association, told me that, “if Cuba ratifies the pacts it would be forced to change its constitution.” Rodiles despairs that there will be no such American pressure put upon Cuba to do so, however, as Obama’s aspiration seems to be normalization at all costs. Restoring full diplomatic ties with Havana has come to be a legacy project for the president, who views it as his duty to right America’s many perceived wrongs. “The Obama administration already has an agenda, and they don’t want to change,” Rodiles sighs. “They got advice from some people that they think the better way is to, in some way, legitimize the totalitarian system.”
In light of his own predicament, Rodiles is right to be suspicious of the administration’s tactics. Less than two weeks after Obama triumphantly announced a new chapter in America’s relationship with Cuba, Rodiles was arrested steps from his front door on the way to a free-speech demonstration in central Havana. A high wall surrounds his home, but it’s not high enough to block the two cameras posted on telephone poles across the street that he says monitor his house 24/7.
I ask Rodiles how his campaign is progressing, and he says that about 2,000 people have thus far signed a petition to the government insisting upon its ratification of international human-rights agreements. It’s a relatively small number for a country with some 11 million inhabitants, though Charter 77, it should be noted, had only 242 initial signatories, in a country that was a few million people larger. Simply signing such a document immediately brings one under suspicion; it is an act requiring remarkable courage.
One of the most courageous people I met on the island was Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White. Formed in 2003, Damas de Blanco, as it is known in Spanish, is a coalition of wives, sisters, daughters, and other female relatives of imprisoned political dissidents. Their protests are regularly met with violence by regime-backed mobs, which drag the women by their hair through the streets. (The regime exports this sort of thuggery; at last month’s Summit of the Americas in Panama, a horde of Castro supporters descended on a group of Cuban non-governmental activists, beating them to the point that Panamanian police had to intervene.) The organization’s founder, Laura Pollán, created the group after her husband, a leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal party, was arrested during the 2003 crackdown known as the “Black Spring.” Pollán died under mysterious circumstances in 2011, the famed Cuban health-care system having failed first to accurately diagnose her dengue fever and then to provide her adequate care.
Like many of the Cubans I meet, Soler takes great pride in making the most of what little she owns: Her tiny flat is decorated with plants and various other tchotchkes. A framed photograph of her meeting with Pope Francis outside St. Peter’s Basilica graces the wall; her dog nips at my feet. A vivacious Afro-Cuban, Soler lives in a decrepit, concrete housing block, part of an expanse of apartments on the outer reaches of Havana so vast that neighborhoods are divided by “zone” numbers. The crumbling scenery stretches in all directions, bleak and limitless, like a setting for one of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian short stories.
One way to think of Cuba is as a giant public-housing project. A place where everyone is a ward of the state, and where private enterprise is next to nonexistent.
One way to think of Cuba is as a giant public-housing project. A place where everyone is a ward of the state, and where private enterprise is next to nonexistent, the country breeds similar social pathologies. Walking through the outskirts of Havana and other unfashionable places where tourists rarely tread, one sees a great number of aimless people without any sort of vocation. They just hang out. “Cubans don’t go to work to produce but to sustain,” Soler says. This is not an indictment of the individual Cuban, who would work were meaningful work available, but of a regime that wants to keep its people listless.
“The government sells a lot of alcohol to occupy the minds of the people,” Soler tells me, an observation that makes a lot of sense once you’ve spent a few days in Cuba. Alcohol is plentiful and cheap. In the poor provincial city of Pinar del Rio, about a two-hour drive west of Havana, I saw a boy no older than 13 walking the streets with a half-empty bottle of beer. A discotheque there was, on a Saturday night, full of people ranging in age from mid teens to 40s; a bottle of Havana Club sets you back $6. Subsidizing the production of cheap alcohol so as to keep the population inebriated (and therefore distracted) is one of many tools that the Cuban regime learned from its erstwhile Soviet benefactor. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut production of vodka, increased its cost, and prohibited the sale of it before lunchtime. Some historians have speculated that reducing alcohol consumption, a cushion to dull the pain of everyday life, led Russians to more quickly understand the misery of their plight, unintentionally accelerating the Soviet Union’s demise.
Like Rodiles, Soler is highly critical of the Obama administration’s caving in to the Castros. “Every deal should be conditioned. America has to put conditions. If you are giving, you have to receive, and for the moment the American government is receiving nothing,” she says. Soler says that there has been no letup in the harassment of dissidents; regime agents smeared one member of her group with tar at a peaceful protest held in February. “We are in the same position or even worse,” she thinks, as the Obama administration steamrolls forward with its normalization plans while asking for nothing in return.
‘Money is coming in and it’s going straight to the government. Regular Cubans don’t touch it.’
— Berta Soler
Supporters of restoring relations with Cuba insist that, in the long run, it will prove detrimental to the Castro regime by opening up the country to Western influences and economic investment. This has long been the point made by liberals, libertarians, and even some conservative opponents of the embargo, who, unlike many leftist opponents of longstanding American Cuba policy, harbor no sympathy for the regime. But when I ask Soler whether increased American investment and more visitors will help people such as herself, she is adamant in her response. Lifting the embargo in exchange for concrete reforms like legalizing independent media and ending restrictions on free speech would make sense, she avers. But lifting it without such conditions, she tells me, is “beneficial to the government, not the Cuban citizens. Money is coming in and it’s going straight to the government. Regular Cubans don’t touch it.”
In his speech announcing the policy shift, President Obama declared that, “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.” The impracticality of this assertion does not become fully apparent until one visits Cuba and comes to appreciate how its peculiar economy functions.
The first thing to understand about the Cuban economy is that the government controls nearly all forms of economic activity, with the exception of some black-market activities like prostitution. “In Cuba, nobody does business with Cubans. They do business with the Castro family,” says Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba. Foreign companies do not hire their own workers but are assigned them by the government, which acts as middleman. Furthermore, companies do not pay their workers directly, but rather compensate the government, which decides how much money to dispense to its subjects. The Cuban economic system is essentially one of indentured servitude, with the government loaning out its citizens for massive profit.
In order to prevent ordinary Cubans from acquiring and accumulating capital, the regime has cleverly instituted a two-currency system. One currency, the convertible peso (CUC), is pegged to the dollar and used by tourists to pay for hotels, meals, taxis, and luxury goods available only in special stores inaccessible to regular Cubans. Visiting Cuba, foreigners will never need to come into contact with any currency other than the CUC. Few Cubans, however, receive CUCs. In addition to their ration books — used to acquire a meager amount of staples such as rice and cooking oil — Cubans also receive monthly salaries, averaging $19 (less than half the cost of living). They are paid in the Cuban peso (CUP), equivalent to about 4 cents. These CUPs can be used to splurge on the occasional extra pair of underwear or to purchase pizza at a food stand. As they are convertible only into CUCs, CUPs are worthless outside the country.
The Cuban economic system is essentially one of indentured servitude, with the government loaning out its citizens for massive profit.
The dual-currency system is the basis of the country’s two-tiered economic structure, dividing Cubans with access to the far more valuable CUCs from those who earn only CUPs. “Those in the peso-only economy are completely dependent on the government, which is in control of more than 85 percent of the total economy,” John Kavulich, president of the U.S.–Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. With these two currencies, and with government ownership of industries as well as of the tourist trade, the regime has ensured that the coming influx of American dollars will fall into its coffers. “The system is cleverly and cynically designed to guarantee the fullest exploitation of every Cuban worker for the benefit of the Castro pocketbook,” says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, which for years has sent small undercover delegations into Cuba with laptops, cell phones, cameras, and other technical equipment to distribute among dissidents and local journalists. (Raúl announced in 2013 that the regime will scrap the CUC and make the CUP the country’s sole currency, though it is unclear when, or even if, this reform will happen.)
Though the Castro regime and its defenders like to blame America for its problems, pointing to the embargo as chief culprit, it is not for lack of American investment that Cuba is so poor. Cuba under Castro has always been a client of another, more economically powerful state that is happy to subsidize it for propagandistic or strategic purposes. For decades, that sponsor was the Soviet Union, which initially saw value in Cuba as a military outpost (and irritant of America) 90 miles off Florida’s coast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a period of sustained economic decline, which lasted until the arrival of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian regime in Venezuela. Subsidies (amounting to about 100,000 barrels of oil a day at half the market price) from the oil-rich Venezuelans managed to help Fidel right the ship, but as the collapse in commodity prices and disastrous economic mismanagement have drastically reduced Caracas’s support for its comrades in Havana, the Castro regime has drifted about searching for another patron. Barack Obama could not have arrived at a more opportune time.
The initial charm of Havana is undeniable. To the American, for whom it has long been a forbidden place, the city exudes mythology and mystique. The vintage cars (over whose noisy engines one must shout the destination to drivers), the music of Buena Vista Social Club, an atmosphere evocative of Hemingway, women singing in the streets to sell their wares — all these cultural touchstones combine to make a heady experience. Foreign tourists rave about the city’s rustic and “authentic” atmosphere, laud the salsa dancing, and gawk at the 1950s Mercury Sun Valleys that clog the roads (for some reason, the plethora of Soviet-era Ladas don’t make it into the colorful photo albums extolling Cuba’s retro urban cool). Few visitors bother to visit an actual Cuban home, and so you won’t hear them coo about the “classic” 1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro’s visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.
“Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat and there’s nothing there,” Berta Soler told me. “If you’re able to find it, it’s bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, ‘What am I going to eat today?’ and go to sleep thinking ‘What am I going to eat tomorrow?’” I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board, the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more eager to consume airplane cuisine.
Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined.
Experiencing socialism as pure as it exists in the contemporary world, one finds something vile about the tendency of so many First World leftists, out of a perverse belief that there exists a thrilling nobility in involuntary (as opposed to deliberate) poverty, to romanticize Cuba. For a state that claims to be classless, Cuba ironically has a highly stratified class system. Cuba’s wealthy elite represents a smaller and much richer percentage of the country’s population (combined net worth of the Castro brothers: $900 million) than the elite of a typical developed nation; its poor, consisting of the vast majority, meanwhile, are much more destitute.
“Socially responsible tourism” has long been a fashionable concern. There are countless travel websites and guidebooks devoted to the concept, which urge explorers to be eco-friendly, patronize local businesses rather than international hotel chains, and generally try to leave the destination better than they found it. This altruistic pursuit is next to impossible in Cuba, ironically one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations for the progressive traveler. My first two nights in Havana, I stayed at a casa particular, a private home whose owner has been permitted to rent out extra rooms to tourists. The landlady, a former Russian teacher, related how the government imposes a huge monthly tax consisting of a percentage of her earnings in addition to a levy that is fixed regardless of how many guests she hosts.
Aside from the meager number of CUCs that operators of casas particulares get to keep, as well as the occasional tips accumulated by hotel bellboys and the like, practically all of the money that foreign tourists spend in Cuba winds up in the pockets of the regime. The government owns outright most of the hotels and maintains at least a 51 percent stake in resorts that are nominally the property of major foreign chains. Taxi drivers are obliged to turn over a fixed amount of cash to the government every month, as are the seemingly independent mom-’n’-pop dining establishments. “When you see a private business and you see it’s prosperous, they have some relationship with people from the elite,” Rodiles explains to me. “Without, it’s impossible.” Socially responsible tourism to Cuba is not only a chimera but a perversion of the concept.
The Cuban embargo is not a hardship for the ordinary Cuban. It is, at most, an inconvenience for American travelers to Cuba, who cannot use their credit or ATM cards in the country and must therefore prepare for their visit by making all of their arrangements in advance over the Internet and also bring a large amount of cash (preferably euros). This was a lesson I learned the hard way, forcing me to ration the relatively small amount of cash I brought to the island. The administration has said that it will ease restrictions on American financial institutions operating in Cuba, which will make things more convenient for American travelers and allow them to spend money on the island more easily. But few Cubans will ever see that cash.
That American policy toward Cuba over the past half century has “failed” is a widely held assumption. It is accurate, however, only insofar as “success” is characterized by the transformation of Cuba into a liberal democracy. (By this standard, why is not the rest of the world’s policy toward Cuba — which consists of treating it like any other country — also judged a “failure”?) Proponents of engagement laud Raúl Castro’s easing of travel restrictions, slight opening of the economy, and other reforms instituted since he took power in 2008, but they never acknowledge the possibility that all of the American pressure and isolation leading up to that point might have had something to do with the changes.
‘The problem that Cuba has had isn’t the embargo. It’s the system that’s not working. Fidel and Raúl just sold a story that’s not true, internationally and domestically.’
— Berta Soler
To be sure, not all of Cuba’s democratic dissidents oppose the Obama administration’s opening. “[The embargo] is only helpful for the government,” Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, co-founder of a small, independent news agency called Hablemos (Let’s Talk) Press, tells me. Pérez gathers information from correspondents across the country and regularly uploads it onto the agency’s website during the two-hour daily timeslot he’s allotted by the regime to use a foreign embassy’s Internet connection. His colleagues occasionally distribute printed newsletters; two of them served jail terms for passing out samizdat literature. Yet Pérez’s wife, Margaly, a member of the Ladies in White, disagrees with her husband, noting that such division of opinion is common in dissident households. This, in itself, is a testament to the vitality of the civil, democratic debate that already exists among Cuba’s independent thinkers.
The embargo (long falsely referred to as a “blockade” by the Cuban regime and its Western sycophants) has been portrayed as the tool of ruthless, embittered Cuban exiles. The “right-wing Miami Cubans” of lore, whose “right-wing” views include support for multi-party democracy, freedom of speech, and an end to the statist economic system in which a family-cum-military syndicate owns practically everything, allegedly have, out of vindictiveness, inflicted the embargo upon those benighted Cubans who stayed behind. But that’s not the way the dissidents I met see the situation. “The problem that Cuba has had isn’t the embargo,” Soler tells me. “It’s the system that’s not working. Fidel and Raúl just sold a story that’s not true, internationally and domestically.”
The outsize role America plays in the Cuban popular imagination is apparent in its embassy, which is unique in ways other than that it is officially called an “interests section,” denoting the lack of official diplomatic relations. Most of the foreign legations in Havana are located in Miramar, a tony area several kilometers from the capital’s center. There, the embassies are housed in giant villas that belonged to the elite who ruled in the era of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The American interests section, however, is a heavily guarded compound on the Malecón, the stone embankment abutting the strip of road along the Caribbean Sea. And unlike the old mansions of Havana’s Miramar district, it consists of a seven-story, nondescript office tower. In 2006, in an inspired bit of diplomacy that today cynics might refer to as “trolling,” the Bush administration erected a Times Square–style ticker visible across 25 windows on the top floor and displaying blunt, pro-democracy messages in bright red letters. Its components smuggled into Cuba via diplomatic pouch, the makeshift display flashed quotes ranging from the anodyne (“Democracy in Cuba”) to the mildly provocative (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up”).
This obviously annoyed the regime, and in response, it erected 138 poles topped with black flags to obstruct the ticker’s visibility (Castro also ordered the parking lot of the interests section be dug up). The poles were installed at the end of the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, a plaza directly outside the interests section consisting of a stage and large concrete slabs on which are painted the ubiquitous revolutionary buzzphrases “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) and “Venceremos” (“We Shall Overcome”). Fifteen years ago, in the midst of the Elián González affair, the Cuban government erected a statue of Martí — a leader of the movement seeking Cuba’s independence from Spain — clutching a small child (meant to be González) while pointing his finger accusatorily at the American building. Over the years, whenever the Cuban regime has wanted to gin up anger at the United States, it has bused tens of thousands of supporters to the Anti-Imperialist Platform, where they can spit venom at the building Fidel has called a “nest of spies.”
#related#In 2009, several months after Obama assumed office, the State Department removed the ticker, deeming it confrontational. It was a sign of things to come. Today, the heavily fortified interests section and the vast plaza outside are no longer the sites of dueling slogans, the respective physical representations of American democratic freedoms and Cuban Communist obfuscations. The administration’s decision to abandon its predecessor’s robust, if piquant, provocation can be seen as a metaphor for the broader policy changes it has implemented over the past four months, deserting the island’s democrats in pursuit of a no-conditions deal with their oppressors. While the rest of the world — with a few noble exceptions, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, ex-Communist countries that reversed their pro-Castro policies almost immediately after the Cold War transitions and began providing vigorous support to the dissidents — has accepted the regime and resigned itself to its perpetuation, America long stood as the most outspoken supporter of democracy in Cuba.
Changes to another edifice also signal something ominous about politics on the island. On my first day in Havana, I walked past El Capitolio, the pre-revolutionary parliament modeled on the U.S. Capitol. Early in his rule, Castro found that he didn’t have much use for the building (“true democracy” would be expressed through voting by a show of hands in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución), and so it was converted into the Cuban Academy of Sciences. El Capitolio is set to reopen later this year, once again serving as a legislative body, housing the rubber-stamp, single-party National Assembly. Walking past, I noticed that the building’s exterior granite walls were halfway through a resurfacing, an overhaul well timed for the huge number of American tourists expected to descend upon the island over the coming year. When it’s finished, the regime will have put a gleaming new façade on its artificial house of representatives.
— James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a correspondent for the Daily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet. This article first appeared in the May 18, 2015, issue of National Review.