A letter to the President from our esteemed friend Carlos Eire:
Dear Mr. President:
I am writing to you because a momentous wrong turn is about to be taken by the United States and you are uniquely poised not just to stop it, but to turn the occasion into a giant step forward for human rights around the globe.
The wrong turn in question is the one currently being railroaded through the House and Senate by profit-seeking lobbyists and naive politicians who favor the lifting of travel restrictions and sanctions against the Castro regime in Cuba. Many Americans favor a change in U.S. policy. You know this. But you also know that making unilateral concessions to repressive military regimes is not only foolish, but dangerous.
Since I know you understand the foreign policy risks involved, I won’t dwell on these. Instead, I would like to appeal to your sense of justice and your concern for human rights.
As you well know, the current regime in Cuba is one of the most repressive on earth. Despite all of the claims made by Cuba’s ruling elites about its ostensibly “free” education and health care, the sad truth is that Cubans are deprived of just about every freedom treasured in this country and also of the most basic human rights. On top of this, Cuba remains one of the most racist nations on earth, staunchly committed to practicing an insidious form of discrimination than can justly be called apartheid.
In many ways, Cuba is not very different from the old South Africa. One might say it’s even worse.
First, there is national apartheid: the vast majority of Cubans are not only segregated from the millions of tourists who visit the island, but are also forbidden the same rights as them, such as access to the internet and to foreign publications. Even worse, over 99 percent of the population, all of whom earn only seventeen dollars a month by government fiat, are effectively banned from the restaurants, beaches, and stores that these Euro- and Dollar-toting foreigners patronize. Then there is the question of travel imbalance: while the whole world can travel freely to Cuba, 99.9 percent of the Cuban population is denied that same right.
Second, there is racial apartheid, not much different from that observed by the old South Africa or some areas of the U.S. before 1965. About 60 percent of the Cuban people are of African descent. Yet, fifty years after Fidel Castro pronounced racism to be illegal on the island, Afro-Cubans make up only 17% of the senior leadership of the Communist Party and 10% of the senior command of the Cuban Armed Forces. Even more appalling: Afro-Cubans make up less than three percent of university students. We do not have exact figures for the racial make-up of Cuba’s police force, but it is no secret that it, too, is overwhelmingly white, and that Afro-Cubans are subjected to constant harassment at their hands. One statistic alone is very revealing: blacks make up over 80% of Cuba’s massive prison population. As if all this were not bad enough, discrimination also dominates the tourist industry, Cuba’s sole lucrative venture, where it is estimated that only five percent of the workers are black or dark-skinned.
Add to all this the fact that some of Cuba’s leading dissidents and advocates for human rights are of African descent, and what you have is a disturbingly familiar mirror image of the old South Africa. Cuba has its Nelson Mandelas too, who suffer treatment even more inhuman than that meted out by South African whites. Two who have attracted international attention are Oscar Elias Biscet and Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as Antúnez). But they are far from alone. Hundreds of others suffer abuse and neglect in cramped cells, simply for speaking their minds and calling for an end to racism.
So what can you do about all this, as president of the United States?
Many around the world look up to you, even idolize you, as someone who stands for freedom and the equality and dignity of all human beings. Many also see you as the very embodiment of progressive politics and social justice. No other American president, and perhaps no other ruler in human history, has ever had as much good will extended to them as you have, simply for being who they are.
The world is ready to listen to you, as it listened to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The world is ready to follow your lead, and so are most of the American people. So, the sooner you act, the better.
Please take this suggestion seriously: instead of lifting the U.S.
embargo against Cuba, or easing travel restrictions, tighten the screws on the thugs who run Cuba. Call on the world to deal with Cuba as it did with South Africa in the 1980’s. Urge the world to treat Cuba as an international pariah, and to cut off all commerce with the white despots who run the island, who have created a polarized, discriminatory society which is not much different from that of the South Africa of old.
If you were to speak out against this crime against humanity, and all of the other human rights abuses on that island, the world would listen. All you would have to do is to say that anyone who travels to Cuba or profits from Cuban labor in any way is as morally reprehensible as anyone who upheld apartheid in the old South Africa, or racial discrimination here in the old United States. And if other nations were to follow your lead, those who rule Cuba would have to loosen their grip, just as South Africa’s leaders had to do two decades ago.
Within a few months, Cuba would be free, and open to the world on an equitable level, not as a slave plantation.
Only you can do this. No one else can. If you want to succeed where your ten predecessors failed, turn Castrolandia into an outcast nation which the whole world should shame into change.
Help free the Cuban people, Mr. President, and, in the process, raise the world’s consciousness and its concern for human rights to a higher level.
T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies Chair, Renaissance Studies Program Yale University