Fidel Castro died on November 25, but Castroism — the one-party, neo-Stalinist system that has tyrannized Cuba for more than half a century — still needs to be defeated.
Fidel’s brother, Raúl, “president” of the island nation for most of the last decade, has shown no signs of ending the political oppression and human-rights violations that define the regime. To be sure, Raúl has made a few minor reforms out of necessity, to open up the economy. But those changes have not been accompanied by political reforms.
The Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the Cuban government and made it easier for Americans to travel and do business there. On January 12 of this year, the administration announced that it was ending the longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy that grants permanent-resident status to any Cuban who makes it to the U.S. shore. And back in October, the Obama administration announced the implementation of Presidential Policy Directive 43, which directs the Department of Defense to expand its relationship with Havana.
Other changes include permitting Americans to bring back as much Cuban rum and cigars as they like from Cuba. “Already we are seeing what the United States and Cuba can accomplish when we put aside the past and work to build a brighter future,” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said at the time. “You can now celebrate with Cuban rum and Cuban cigars!”
But Cubans aren’t celebrating. Under Castroism, Cuba’s main accomplishments have been the highest per-capita rates of suicide, abortion, and refugees in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba has the oldest population in Latin America. Cuba ages and withers away, strangled by Castro’s tyranny.
The problem with Obama’s overtures is that they have not been reciprocated by the Cuban regime. There is still no respect for human rights or political freedom. As Amnesty International put it recently:
Despite increasingly open diplomatic relations, severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and movement continued. Thousands of cases of harassment of government critics and arbitrary arrests and detentions were reported.
But the situation is not hopeless. Cubans of different generations and backgrounds are committed like never before to working for a free Cuba.
There are many things Cubans, Cuban Americans, and other people of goodwill can do. They can support the resistance by encouraging those who are involved in direct civic action on the island. For instance, the Ladies in White, a group of wives, mothers, and sisters of jailed dissidents, continue to suffer beatings, harassment, and jailing at the hands of the government for their silent, non-violent marches. Such protests are an indispensable means through which Cubans’ rights will be regained.
Under Castroism, Cuba’s main accomplishments have been the highest per-capita rates of suicide, abortion, and refugees in the Western Hemisphere.
What must happen for Cuba to be free? The regime must give general amnesty for all political prisoners. That means full rights to free expression, access to information, assembly, association, peaceful protest, profession, and worship.
Other essential rights include the right to collective bargaining, the rule of law, checks and balances, and the balance of power, including an independent judiciary.
A free Cuba will be realized only when multi-party elections are held and the right to vote and the privacy of the ballot are respected. For that to happen, a constitutional process must take place that includes a constitutional convention and a referendum on a new constitution.
Many Cuban Americans hope that President Trump will be a stronger advocate for human rights than Barack Obama was. During the campaign, Trump promised to “stand with the Cuban people in their fight against Communist oppression” and criticized the “concessions” that Barack Obama made to the Castros. He promised to secure a “better deal” between the two countries than the one Obama negotiated.
Trump should make it clear that he will sever diplomatic relations with the Cuban government unless it makes progress to end political repression, opens its markets, protects freedom of religion, and releases all political prisoners.
The public may believe that, now that Fidel and Obama are gone, Cuba is well on its way to being free. But Castroism didn’t die with Fidel. The repression and violence against the Cuban people continues. Economic changes alone will not bring about democracy. They are important, but only respect for human rights and political liberty will truly make Cuba free.
— Mario T. de la Peña is an advocate for a free and democratic Cuba who has lived in the United States since 1962.