Message to Obama from Rosa Maria Paya: Cuba’s repressive totalitarian dictatorship is still intact

Uri Friedman in The Atlantic:

‘The Totalitarian Regime Is Intact’: One Cuban’s Message to Obama

The U.S. is pressing ahead with its opening to Cuba. What does that mean for democracy on the island?

Ofelia Acevedo, wife of Oswaldo Paya, one of Cuba's best-known dissidents, is comforted by a priest near the tomb of her husband after his burial in Havana July 24, 2012. Paya, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, died on Sunday in a car crash, government and opposition sources said. Another dissident died in the crash, and a Spaniard and Swede were injured, after the car left the road and hit a tree, government officials told Reuters. REUTERS/Stringer (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY) - RTR359TA
Rosa Maria Paya buries her father, Oswaldo Paya, in Havana in 2012.

Earlier this month, Ben Rhodes, the architect of Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, characterized the full restoration of U.S.-Cuban relations—in other words, Congress lifting the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo against the island—as inevitable and imminent. It would be the next domino to fall after the first U.S. presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years, the first authorization of commercial flights from America to Cuba in five decades, the first sales of Cuban coffee to the U.S. market, and so on.

“The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen,” Rhodes said. “Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”

As the Obama administration seeks to cement one of its principal foreign-policy achievements, it’s worth pausing to unpack that complex word: “desire.” Rhodes is right that the majority of Americans and Cubans support re-establishing ties between the two nations. Yet most Americans and Cubans don’t think re-established ties will bring more democracy to Cuba’s one-party state. In one 2015 poll, just over 50 percent of Cubans said they were dissatisfied with the country’s political system and wanted more political parties than the Castros’ Communist Party. But roughly the same percentage didn’t think their country’s new relationship with the United States would change the Cuban political system (Cubans were more likely to anticipate change in their widely despised economic system). They desire normal relations with America. But many also desire democracy. And they don’t expect the former to lead to the latter.

For Rosa Maria Paya, such an outcome is patently unacceptable. Paya is the daughter of Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban democracy activist who in 2012 was killed in a mysterious car crash that official accounts labeled an accident, but that Paya’s family, and the driver of the car, have condemned as a brazen assassination by the Castro regime. Paya is 27 years old, a recent college graduate who studied physics like her father and relocated from Havana to Miami after his death; she’s part of a generation of Cubans that is especially supportive of democracy, the United States, and emigration from Cuba. And Paya is an activist in her own right, continuing her father’s campaign for a national plebiscite on whether to overhaul Cuba’s political system.

Paya cannot be counted among the “overwhelming” number of Cubans who, according to Rhodes, are enthusiastic about Obama’s Cuba policy. She is not as quick as Rhodes to downplay the “political realities” in her country. At the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, she offered sobering and, at times, searing commentary on what the Obama administration’s outreach to Cuba has produced—and, critically, what it hasn’t.

Paya said she’s in favor of countries engaging with and investing in Cuba, but argued that media coverage of the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, and the ways both governments have sold the rapprochement, have created the false perception that a political transition is underway on the island. That perception is in part the result of Cuban elites cynically exploiting the free market and the symbols of the free world, she said: “I’m talking about Mick Jagger in Havana, or Chanel [fashion shows], or a Fast & Furious [film shoot] taking place on the Malecon.”

“The totalitarian regime is still intact,” she told me. “Fundamental human rights that have been violated for 55 years are still being violated, and the life of the common Cuban hasn’t changed at all.”

Yes, more Americans can now travel to Cuba and more Cubans can now travel to America, Paya conceded, but the Cuban government still bars its critics from leaving the country by denying them passports. Recent visits by Obama, Pope Francis, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, she added, have granted legitimacy to a government “that is not legitimate … that is not normal even if you normalize relations with it,” that relies on violent suppression and dynastic succession to maintain power, and that deprives its citizens of freedoms of expression, association, internet access, and multiparty elections.

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1 thought on “Message to Obama from Rosa Maria Paya: Cuba’s repressive totalitarian dictatorship is still intact”

  1. Democracy on the island? What island? Not Cuba. Nobody is seriously seeking that except “those people,” including Payá’s daughter, but we know how pointedly badly she was treated by US State Department personnel at the opening of the Castro embassy in DC, and that was no slip or mistake but simply Obama’s Cuba policy. If Obama or the usual suspects have to choose between Ben Rhodes’s “expertise” and hers (or her father’s, if he were alive), it’s no contest–not even close. For her to try to reason with Obama is like throwing pearls before swine.

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