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As Cubans March for Freedom, Democrats Are Split

The courageous demonstrations for liberty and against the communist regime in Cuba have exposed some rifts in the Democratic Party.
July 14, 2021
Featured Image
Dozens of people during demonstration i in support of the protests in Cuba, in front of the Cuban embassy in Spain, on July 12, 2021, in Madrid (Spain). fo to support the protests that have been taking place since Sunday against the government of Miguel Diaz-Canel in the main Cuban cities. (Photo by Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The demonstrations in Cuba are a welcome reminder that while many officials and politicians in Europe, Latin America, and the United States have given up on freedom in Cuba, millions of Cubans have not.

Cuban-American relations, which had been cold but steady after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, saw their first signs of change in 2016, when President Obama began loosening the economic sanctions and took his wife and children with him to Cuba. Later that year, when Obama’s Cuba policy hand, Ben Rhodes, attended the memorial service for Fidel Castro, the message of normalization was clear: The bad old “Cold War” policy toward Cuba had to go and relations between Cuba and the United States had to warm up.

Cubans did not benefit. Instead millions saw the change in U.S. policy as a favor to the regime, a gift springing from an ideology of American apology that did nothing to reduce the oppression Cubans were facing. The Trump administration reversed the Obama policy, and so far, the Biden administration has hewn closer to the Trump approach than to Obama’s. Biden spokespeople have said Cuba was not high on his priority list, perhaps as a way of appeasing those in the Democratic Party who wanted a return to Obama policy by leaving open the possibility of another attempted rapprochement with Havana in the future.

It’s fortunate for Biden that he waited, because he now gets to be a champion of democracy. Cubans clearly loathe the regime, which has ostensibly been led by the apparatchik Miguel Díaz-Canel since earlier this year, when Raúl Castro announced his resignation as head of the Cuban Communist Party. The recent demonstrations are striking because so many Cubans are involved, and because they are truly national. They did not emerge in Havana, and they appear to involve Cubans from many strata and sectors of society. The enthusiastic participation of artists, writers, and poets in the protests appeals to Western and Latin American intellectuals. Díaz-Canel’s trite and tired efforts to blame the demonstrations on the United States demonstrate how unprepared the regime is for the biggest protests in a generation.

The American far left appears equally unprepared. Two members of the Squad, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose reaction to these cries for “Libertad” was: “DSA stands with the Cuban people and their Revolution in this moment of unrest. End the blockade.” By “Revolution,” they don’t mean the protesters in the streets now—they mean the 1959 revolution that plunged the island nation into decades of totalitarian Communist rule. By “the blockade,” they mean the American trade embargo of Cuba, which successive Cuban leaders (there have only been three since 1959) have blamed for their country’s economic woes, corruption, and anything else that might stick—despite the fact that the United States is the only country in the world to enforce such an embargo against Cuba.

Those with the best knowledge of Cuban life and politics, the Cuban people, seem to have a difference of opinion with the DSA. The whole point of these marches is the rejection of Fidel Castro’s old cry of “Patria o Muerte”—instead, the protesters are chanting “Patria y Libertad,” and more recently, “Patria y Vida.” Cubans want freedom, not the Revolution.

President Biden’s statement on the Cuban protests, while less than forthcoming on what the United States can or should do to help our oppressed neighbors desperate for freedom, did call their protests a “clarion call” and commended their bravery. No member of the Squad has said one word for freedom in Cuba, or backed the Cuban people’s demands. (Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would be in a particularly apt position to do so, but I am not holding my breath.)

This is not the first time Cubans have organized to demand freedom of speech and free elections. In 1987, political activist Oswaldo Payá organized the Varela Project calling for democratic reforms, and got more than 25,000 signatures for a petition calling on the government to respect basic human rights. The effort won Payá the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought—and got him killed by the regime in a staged car accident in 2012. The Ladies in White, wives and other female relatives of political prisoners, started walking through the streets of Havana in 2003. Also Sakharov Prize winners, they have been subject to waves of arrests—in 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016.

The crowds of people in the streets are far more numerous than the Ladies in White ever were—and they’re not limited to the capital.

And this time, Fidel Castro is dead. While his brother and successor, Raúl, is in theory retired, no one can be in any doubt that he calls the shots; it is he, not Díaz-Canel, who retains the ultimate power to send the army into the streets to repress demonstrations. But Raul is 90; change is coming. And while the regime may have expected a rescue—a serious softening of the embargo, to begin with—from Biden, that seems to be politically impossible. The Squad may remain silent, and some incorrigibles (Rhodes is one, calling this week for the end of economic sanctions) may pine for the Obama days, but neither principle nor politics will lead Biden in their direction.

What’s happened has shown that Cuba is neither a Castro family finca nor a left-wing showplace. It is a country with 11 million people who want to be as free as their neighbors (and, in many cases, family) in the Caribbean and the United States.

What then should Biden do? First, keep up the rhetorical and political support for Cubans. Denounce the repression. Take the issue to any international organization where we can make a fuss. Second, assess all our democracy-support programs—in USAID, the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, and everywhere else—and see how they can be strengthened to support Cubans right now. Better internet access? Support for opposition groups? Training in third countries? Third, offer all sorts of support for Cuba, such as allowing Cuban Americans to send more money there or making tourism easier, ifthe regime makes serious moves toward political freedom. Make it clear that what stands in the way of a better life is still the Castro regime—just as it has since 1959.

In other words, say and do everything we sensibly can to stay on the side of the Cuban people. That is the position Biden inherited from Trump. Now he has the chance to strengthen it and show that human rights will indeed be, as Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have claimed, at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams served as the United States special representative for both Iran and Venezuela in the Donald Trump administration, as deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, and as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs and for inter-American affairs in the Ronald Reagan administration. He is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.