As if the world needed further reminding, in recent weeks there have been two events that underscore the unremitting brutality of the Castro regime in Cuba. Just last week, human rights activists reported on the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 83-day hunger strike. An Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, Zapata Tamayo was a 42-year-old Afro-Cuban dissident who was serving a 36-year sentence for the Orwellian crime of "dangerousness." Amnesty lamented, "Faced with a prolonged prison sentence, the fact that Orlando Zapata Tamayo felt he had no other avenue available to him but to starve himself in protest is a terrible indictment of the continuing repression of political dissidents in Cuba." Indeed.
In the second incident, last December, American citizen Alan Gross was jumped by Cuban state security agents as he attempted to leave Cuba after providing communications equipment to help apolitical Cuban Jewish groups access the Internet. He has been held since in a cell in the notorious Villa Marista state security headquarters in Havana.
One would think that decent people everywhere would be appalled at these outrageous assaults on freedom and human dignity, and thankfully most are. (A searing Washington Post editorial here on the death of Zapata Tamayo.) Unfortunately, that doesn't include the dogged legions of critics of U.S.-Cuba policy who can find no criminal act by the Castro regime that cannot be explained or excused.
Even an action as heinous as the death of a political prisoner won't dissuade them. The incessantly critical Center for Democracy in the Americas (!) "laments" the death of Zapata Tamayo, but "joins...others in urging changes in Cuba policy as the right response."
Not to be outdone in bad taste, another critic, Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, points visitors to his blog to a Cuban government statement on medical attention given to Orlando Zapata before his death, before, er, chiding the Castro regime that it is responsible for the well-being of prisoners in its custody, just as the United States is "for prisoners it holds at Guantanamo or anywhere else." Mr. Peters apparently fails to see the obscenity of comparing captured terrorists to a Cuban prisoner of conscience.
In the case of arrested American Alan Gross, the twisted perspective is equally contemptible. Gross was in Cuba under a USAID program that began during the Clinton Administration to provide material support to families of Cuban political prisoners and human rights activists. The program was expanded by the U.S. Congress during the Bush Administration to encompass "New Media" technology -- including Internet access and cell phones -- for Cubans wishing to carve out some semblance of independent space on the island.
One would think that a fellow American jailed by a totalitarian regime for trying to help its people would cause these commentators to close ranks behind the unfortunate individual, but they are perfectly willing to throw him to the wolves. Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations helpfully echoes the regime's rationale in the Washington Post, "I believe the Cubans arrested him to force the U.S. government to focus on the provocative nature of these aid programs, which are designed to push for regime change."
The dean of Castro apologists, Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, throws Mr. Gross an anchor when he intones to the Miami Herald, "Maybe he was up to something he shouldn't have been up to."
An anti-embargo blog, The Havana Note, offers this message of solidarity:
"The issue is not only the US magnifying the importance and saying nice things about marginal political opponents of a government everyone else in the world but we recognize, but also that it subsidizes them while maintaining a harsh embargo on travel and trade."
It is a wonder the Castro regime pays anyone to write its propaganda when there are so many outside Cuba so willing to carry the regime's water.
Finally, elsewhere on this site the ubiquitous Mr. Peters is back at it, penning the equivalent of a Castro ransom note for the unfortunate Mr. Gross: "It would be far better if a long-overdue review [of U.S.-Cuba policy] were prompted by something other than Gross's arrest" (although he is willing to allow it to be prompted by just that). He says President Obama "would do well to slash or scrap USAID's Cuba program" because "current policies play naively and directly into the hands of Cuban state security." Not only is he oblivious to the irony of his own recommendation playing precisely into Havana's hands -- arrest an American, shut down the aid program -- but he appears unconcerned about the dangerous signal that would send around the world about America's willingness to stand by oppressed peoples seeking respect for their inalienable rights.
From these morally bankrupt perspectives, the problem in Cuba is not a brutal, unrepentant, and unreformed Stalinist regime, but a U.S. policy that attempts to help Cubans connect with the outside world beyond regime control or claim their essential freedoms. America should count its blessings such a mindset never prevailed during the Cold War, lest the Berlin Wall still be standing.
The double standard regarding Cuba has been a source of enduring frustration for Cuba democracy advocates. Just last year, regional leaders invited Cuba back into the fold of the Organization of American States, despite its five decades of rigged one-party "elections," yet continue to shun democratic and peaceful Honduras. The world rightly honors a long-serving political prisoner like Nelson Mandela, but couldn't name one of several Cuban political prisoners who served longer sentences in the Cuban gulag than Mandela's 27 years in South African prisons. Activists demanded U.S. intervention in Pinochet's Chile to support regime change there, but any such effort to support democratic forces in Cuba is deemed "illegitimate."
Of course, international human rights organizations have been forced to confront the regime's systematic abuse of human rights, but they also insist on getting their licks in on the United States, as if U.S. policy forces the regime to assault dissidents in the streets or deny Cubans their fundamental freedoms.
It is a sad state of affairs, and one that show no signs of abating. Obviously, activists are in a state of panic as they see their dreams of an Obama Administration unilaterally and unconditionally normalizing relations with the Castro regime evaporating into thin air. Clearly, no U.S. President is going to risk the dignity of his office reaching his hand out to a thug regime that demonstrates no willingness to abide by any elementary norms of civilized behavior.
No question there are some sincere critics of current policy that believe opening up Cuba to U.S. trade and travel will transform Cuba into a Jeffersonian democracy. But they fail to understand the true nature of the Castro brothers' regime. A unilateral reversal of U.S. policy at this point would accomplish nothing but making the United States an accomplice in the Castro regime's continued crimes again the Cuban people.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.