Cuba in 2017 is a captive nation that since 1959 has been subjected to a communist regime run by the Castro family. Eleven million souls continue to have their lives coarsened by a totalitarian regime that systematically violates the human rights of all Cubans.
Barack Obama’s Cuba policy continued to unfold until the final days of his presidency, marginalizing dissidents and legitimizing the Castro regime internationally. Three decisions cemented the Obama White House’s legacy on Cuba, at the expense not only of a free Cuba but of the lives and security of American citizens. On October 14, 2016, The White House issued a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) that calls for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to “support broader United States Government efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, with Intelligence Community elements working to find opportunities for engagement on areas of common interest through which we could exchange information on mutual threats with Cuban counterparts.” A former NSA official wrote, “Obama just opened the door for Castro’s spies.” Secondly, on January 12, 2017, the White House released a “Statement by the President on Cuban Immigration Policy” that further restricted the Cuban Adjustment Act without consulting with Congress and ended the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. Thirdly, on January 17, President Obama granted clemency to Oscar López Rivera, a leader of the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, FALN), a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group that, with the backing and funding of Castro’s Cuba, carried out more than 130 bombings in American cities. The son of one of López’s victims told the New York Daily News, “I faced Lopez six years ago at his parole hearing… If he had expressed any atonement, any sympathy or empathy… we’d have recommended he be released. But he didn’t.”
Granting unilateral concessions on long-term top-priority issues for the Cuban government did not endear President Obama to the Castro regime. Instead, they viewed him as weak, and manifested it in high-profile ways. Nine months after President Obama’s March 2016 state visit to Cuba, Raúl Castro presided over a military parade in Havana where marching troops chanted about shooting the American President in the head.
2016 was also a year of change at the top. The long-awaited death of Fidel Castro occurred on November 25. Celebrations broke out in the streets of Miami, where tens of thousands of Cubans and Cuban Americans went out to celebrate the tyrant’s departure. Cuban-American voters played a role in ushering in another change, this one completely unexpected: Donald J. Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States. President-elect Trump’s statement on Fidel Castro’s death was clear and historically accurate: “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
In 2016 there were 9,940 politically motivated arrests in Cuba, as documented by the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a more than elevenfold increase from the 869 recorded in 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency. Religious repression escalated in 2016, with pastors beaten up and churches confiscated and even demolished by the dictatorship.
One victim’s story illustrates this continued repression. On May 24, 2015, Sirley Ávila León was the victim of a brutal machete attack that cost her her left hand and also left her right upper arm nearly severed and knees slashed, leaving her crippled. She was denied adequate medical care and was told quietly by medical doctors that if she wanted to get better she would need to leave Cuba. The regime had been embarrassed by a campaign she organized to keep a school open. She arrived in Miami on March 8, 2017, and thanks to the Cuban exile community, a team of medical doctors attended to her, and by September of 2017 Sirley was able to return home to Cuba. She found her home occupied by strangers and went to her mother’s house. A short time later a camera was set up outside to spy on her. By mid-October 2016, Sirley was getting death threats from state security and feared for her life. She fled back to the United States a couple of weeks later and sought asylum.
The last year has also seen the detention of new prisoners of conscience. Eduardo Cardet Concepción, the successor of Oswaldo Payá as the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, was traveling abroad when Fidel Castro died, and gave a frank assessment of the old tyrant’s legacy. When he returned to Cuba five days later, he was beaten up in front of his family and jailed, and, in March of 2017, sentenced to three years in prison. Cubans also had to mourn the death of Fidel Castro or else face punishment. An entire family—Maydolis Leyva Portelles, her twin daughters Anairis and Adairis Miranda Leyva, and their brother Fidel Manuel Batista Leyva—were detained for not publicly grieving Fidel Castro’s death during the official period of mourning. Also, on May Day in Cuba, before the world’s cameras, a lone Cuban ran down the path the parade would take, waving an American flag. This man, Daniel Llorente Miranda, was tackled down by state security and jailed for “public disorder and resistance.” After several weeks, he was moved from the Technical Department of Investigations of the Police at 100th and Aldabó Streets to the Comandante Dr. Bernabé Ordaz Ducungé Psychiatric Hospital, better known by its pre-revolutionary name, Mazorra. Using psychiatric facilities to torture dissidents is a Soviet practice that was quickly adopted by the Castro regime’s intelligence services.
The regime also manipulated education for political ends. Félix Yuniel Llerena López, a 20-year-old defender of religious freedom, was expelled from the Enrique José Varona Pedagogical University in Havana on May 8, 2017 following a visit to the United States. Eighteen-year-old journalism student Karla Pérez González was expelled from Marta Abreu University of Santa Clara for “political reasons” on April 12, 2017 and her expulsion ratified three days later. Twenty-four-year-old David Mauri Cardoso was expelled from the University of Cienfuegos in February of 2017 after he honestly answered politically loaded questions in what was supposed to be a Spanish literature exam. Professor Dalila Rodriguez from the University of Las Villas, herself not a political dissident, was expelled from her job on May 9, 2017 because her father, Leonardo Rodriguez, is one. These are not new tactics. Expelling students and denying them an education for their political orientation has a long and shameful history in Cuba.
In spite of repeatedly loosening sanctions on the dictatorship, trade between Cuba and the United States has imploded under the Obama Administration. The peak year of US trade in goods with Cuba was 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration. The two worst years in trade were the ones following the new Cuba policy launch in December of 2014. The Cuban economy contracted in 2016. At the same time, military control over it has expanded, including the Old Havana project, which until this past year had been under civilian control.
Cuba’s influence over socialist Venezuela has become more and more obvious. On May 15, 2016, Henry Ramos Allup, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, complained over social media about the role played by a Cuban general and 60 Cuban officers in keeping Nicolás Maduro in power and maintaining Cuba’s Venezuelan resource lifeline. Similarly, Mary O’Grady recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “Every Venezuelan armed-forces commander has at least one Cuban minder, if not more.” Despite this longtime reality, Secretary of State John Kerry in August of 2015 reported that “the United States and Cuba are talking about ways to solve the Venezuelan crisis.” The Obama Administration’s view that the Castro regime could be a partner in resolving the crisis in Venezuela indicates that it did not understand the dynamics driving the crisis. The new Trump Administration appears to be going in another and saner direction on both Cuba and Venezuela.
Cuba and US National Security
US Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee in his written submission on May 23, 2017 that “Cuba also pose[s] persistent foreign intelligence threats to the United States. Cuba’s intelligence apparatus, for example, maintains a robust capability and an intent to give priority to collection on the United States.” The previous Administration’s director of national intelligence had reported similar information in February of 2016.
For more than 50 years, Cuban diplomats have plotted and facilitated terrorist attacks, covered up extrajudicial killings, and harbored terrorists. Joanne Chesimard, the escaped cop-killer harbored by the Castro regime, is often mentioned in the press, but there are many others, like escaped terrorist Guillermo Morales and Ishmael LaBeet, the murderer who hijacked a plane in order to escape to Cuba. On July 8, 2017, The New York Times reported that there are an estimated 70 other fugitives from US justice being harbored by the Castro regime. Despite this, the Obama Administration removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In April 2016, Panamanian police seized more than 880 pounds of cocaine in a Cuban ship on its way to Belgium. There is a long history of collaboration between international drug cartels and the Castro regime stretching back at least to the early 1980s, where cocaine trafficking profits were used to fund communist guerilla movements in South America. Despite all this, under the Obama Administration the Drug Enforcement Agency publicized how it was sharing intelligence on drug trafficking with the Castro regime.
Ending a failed policy?
The Trump Administration took a first step to address the previous Cuba policy’s shortcomings on June 16, 2017. The “National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba” released that day begins, “My Administration’s policy will be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, as well as solidarity with the Cuban people. I will seek to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. To that end, we must channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society.”
Let us hope that this policy succeeds in meeting its stated goals and that Cuba soon disappears from the list of Captive Nations.
A version of this report was originally published on July 19, 2017 on Mr. Suarez’s blog, Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter.