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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Young Activists Reply to Open Letter by Cuban-American Businessmen

"To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend. There is no merit in loving an enemy when you forget him for a friend." - Mohandas Gandhi 
Cuban American businessmen invited to Embassy while Cuban barred from delivering letter
On December 20, 2015 The Miami Herald published an open letter by ten prominent Cuban-American businessmen as a full page advertisement. We read the letter with great concern. We are young enough to be their children and grandchildren. Some of us were born in Cuba while others in the diaspora. We do not question their good intentions or believe that they have a hidden agenda and like them we would like to see the reunification of our larger Cuban family. We also agree that we and the world have changed.

The Cuban diaspora has matured and a debate that decades ago would have ended in acrimony and threats, although still passionate today, can be conducted within the norms of democratic discourse. Although this is a change that bodes well for Cuba's future, the world has also changed in ways that are not for the better. Human rights and democracy have been in retreat for the better part of a decade emboldening dictators and terrorists to challenge the international order turning it into something cruel and indifferent to human aspirations for freedom and dignity. We are witnessing today in Venezuela the attempt by the Maduro regime to undermine the results of a democratic election while at the same time rejecting calls for an amnesty to free Venezuelan prisoners of conscience. This change poses a challenge for a democratic Cuba in the future.

This new reality is in large part due to unprincipled engagement with Communist China by Western Countries, including the United States. Corporations shifted manufacturing away from their free markets, labor unions, and environmental protections toward Communist China were workers are paid slave wages, work in terrible conditions and where environmental regulations are non-existent. The world today is dirtier, less free, and human dignity has been debased to the point that organ trafficking is a common practice and the bodies of dissidents are put on display for the amusement and curiosity of paying visitors around the world.

Some of the men who signed this open letter took part in this process in China. We are not, however here to criticize them but to provide context to what they wish to do in Cuba and the reasons why they continue down this path with the belief that they are operating in good faith.

We are joining this public conversation because we believe that we can provide a constructive contribution to the discussion. This necessitates recalling the wise words of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), who observed: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." The authors of "An Open Letter to our fellow Cuban-Americans" assert that they visited Cuba "to confront the myths that can only persist in the absence of first-hand knowledge" and challenge "those who continue to hear news about Cuba second-hand, we do not believe that you are being well served without seeing the changing Cuban reality on the island with your own eyes, as we have with ours."

Unfortunately, visiting a totalitarian dictatorship to obtain "first-hand knowledge" has historically been a fool’s errand. Before they had set foot aboard the plane for Havana they should have first read, Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society. This sociology text analyzes how totalitarian regimes, such as the one in Cuba, are able to disguise the horrors taking place in their systems presenting it in a positive light to visitors:
The techniques of hospitality comprise an entire range of measures designed to influence the perception and judgement of the guests; it is a form of attempted persuasion by "evidence," the evidence of the senses. As such, these techniques represent a concentrated effort to maximize control over the experiences of the visitors. Naturally the more centralized and powerful the host governments and the greater their control over the resources of their countries and their citizens, the more successful they are in controlling the experiences of the visitor. Insofar as each one of the four countries [ USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam] at the times of the visits could be regarded as totalitarian, the possibilities for shaping the visitor's impressions and experiences were greatly enhanced. [ pg. 347 - 348 Hollander Political Pilgrims]
This practice is not limited to left wing totalitarians but was also effectively carried out by the Nazi Third Reich in presenting a false impression to a visiting International Red Cross delegation. As reported by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
"Succumbing to pressure following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Germans permitted representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit in June 1944. It was all an elaborate hoax. The Germans intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was "beautified." Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. The Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944."
The call for tourism to obtain first-hand knowledge in a totalitarian regime also fails to address the real dangers of traveling to Cuba, including the brutal murder of a 39-year-old Tampa attorney in January of 2015 in Havana.

It is also important to remember that the Castro regime (it is not a proper government but a dictatorship) rolled out the red carpet for these 10 Cuban-American businessmen some of whom were invited to the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC on July 20, 2015. That same embassy, within 24 hours of inviting them in, refused to allow Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo to enter to deliver a letter from her family requesting the autopsy report for her father Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, who was killed on July 22, 2012 along with Harold Cepero under circumstances that point to an extrajudicial execution. The family is entitled to this report by Cuban law but three years later have yet to receive it.

As advocates for a free and democratic Cuba, in good conscience, we cannot say that progress has been made on both sides of the Florida Straits. On the contrary the past 12 months have seen new lows reached on both sides that had not been seen in decades. In Cuba there have been rising levels of violence against activists and 8,616 politically motivated arbitrary detentions in 2015. The Obama State Department snubbed Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo in stark contrast to the treatment given to her father in 2002 who had a face to face meeting with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. In Cuba the US embassy did not invite dissidents to the flag raising ceremony. Now there is a new policy which has placed accreditation, previously handled in the U.S. Interests Section, in the hands of the Castro regime's Ministry of Foreign Relations which in practice means that independent journalists are no longer covering events at the U.S. embassy in Havana and dissidents have had their access dramatically restricted.

The December 17, 2014 announcement by the President broke new ground in only one area releasing Gerardo Hernandez, a Cuban spy and terrorist, convicted of murder conspiracy of three U.S. citizens and a resident. Not only did President Obama commute the sentence but a few days later tried to rewrite history calling an act of international terrorism, the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, a tragedy.

Removing Cuba from the list of terror sponsors on May 29, 2015 while ignoring the Castro regime smuggling heavy weapons to North Korea (which is again in the news with a company in Singapore found guilty of transferring funds) and weapon shipments through Colombia and its links to international drug trafficking to satisfy the dictatorship’s demand in order normalize relations sends a dangerous signal. Politicizing the State Department’s human trafficking report to ignore sex trafficking in Cuba and the dictatorship sending Cuban workers overseas for profit compromised its integrity placing victims at risk. These unilateral concessions ignore realities on the ground and undermine the credibility of the United States and endanger lives.

The Obama administration "new policy" of unilateral concessions which began in 2009 has produced a bitter harvest and the December 17, 2014 announcement was a doubling down on this failed policy that has a high profile body count.

Cuba has seen rising levels of violence against nonviolent activists and the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders during the Obama presidency: Orlando Zapata Tamayo (February 23, 2010), Daisy Talavera de las Mercedes Lopez (January 31, 2011) , Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (May 8, 2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (October 14, 2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (January 19, 2012), Sergio Diaz Larrastegui (April 19, 2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (July 22, 2012) and Harold Cepero Escalante (July 22, 2012).

Both Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá each had the international recognition and ability to head an authentic democratic transition in Cuba. Oswaldo Payá had forced the dictatorship to change the constitution in 2002 because of Project Varela, a citizen initiative demanding legal reforms within the existing system, and Laura Pollán through constant street demonstrations achieved the freedom of scores of Cuban prisoners of conscience. It is important to remember that the deaths of these high profile human rights defenders all happened on President Obama's watch.

Unfortunately, following this new relationship between the United States and Cuba the pattern of violence against activists was escalated by the Castro regime. Cuban human rights defender, Sirley Ávila León, a 56 year old mother of two and a one-time delegate of the People’s Assembly of Majibacoa worked through official channels to represent her community but when they ignored her requests to keep a school open she went to the international media and was later removed from office. She then joined the democratic opposition which led to escalating acts of repression by state security against her culminating in a machete attack in Cuba on May 24, 2015 by Osmany Carrión who had been sent by state security agents. While raising her hand to block a machete blow to the head, she suffered deep cuts to her neck and knees, lost her left hand and the machete cut through the bone of her right humerus leaving her arm dangling. She is still in danger while her assailant is free to walk the streets of Cuba.

These realities demonstrate that courage demands that we maintain both our dignity and an open mind in resisting and rejecting this approach which twice before (in 1977-1980 and 1993-2000) has proved disastrous to both Cubans and Americans. We cannot ignore that Cubans on the island recognize that this policy will prolong the life of the dictatorship and more than 70,000 have fled to freedom and many more would like to leave because they do not have confidence in the Castro regime and the claims that progress has been made. Their daily reality in Cuba says otherwise and no amount of propaganda and manipulation is going to change that. We need to face this hard future with courage and dignity prioritizing the person over ideologies and remembering the words of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas four months prior to his untimely death:
"Our Movement denounces the regime's attempt to impose a fraudulent change, i.e. change without rights and the inclusion of many interests in this change that sidesteps democracy and the sovereignty of the people of Cuba. The attempt to link the Diaspora in this fraudulent change is to make victims participate in their own oppression. The Diaspora does not have to 'assume attitudes and policies in entering the social activity of the island.' The Diaspora is a Diaspora because they are Cuban exiles to which the regime denied rights as it denies them to all Cubans. It is not in that part of oppression, without rights, and transparency that the Diaspora has to be inserted, that would be part of a fraudulent change. [...] The gradual approach only makes sense if there are transparent prospects of freedom and rights. We Cubans have a right to our rights. Why not rights? It is time. That is the peaceful change that we promote and claim: Changes that signify freedom, reconciliation, political pluralism and free elections. Then the Diaspora will cease being a Diaspora, because all Cubans will have rights in their own free and sovereign country. That is why we fight."
Vigil on February 24, 2015 demanding justice for four Brothers to the Rescue members killed in 1996

Signed by,

Juan Carlos Sanchez
Cesar Vasquez
Harold Silva
John Suarez
Augusto Monge
Yosvani Oliva
Pedro Ross
Stephanie Rudat
Colena Corley
Pamela Adan
Lourdes Palomo  

(E-mail if you are a student or University alumnus and would like to have your name added)

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