By Carlos Eire
I am furious, in pain, and deeply offended by those who laud this betrayal of the Cuban people as a great moment in history.
My family and native land were destroyed by the brutal Castro regime. In 1959, as an eight-year-old, I listened to mobs shout “paredon!” (to the firing squad!). I watched televised executions, and was terrified by the incessant pressure to agree with a bearded dictator’s ideals.
As the months passed, relatives, friends, and neighbors began to disappear. Some of them emerged from prison with detailed accounts of the tortures they endured, but many never reappeared, their lives cut short by firing squads.
I also witnessed the government’s seizure of all private property — down to the ring on one’s finger — and the collapse of my country’s economy. I began to feel as if some monstrous force was trying to steal my mind and soul through incessant indoctrination.
By the age of 10, I was desperate to leave.
The next year, my parents sent me to the United States. I am one of the lucky 14,000 unaccompanied children rescued by Operation Pedro Pan. Our plan to reunite within a few months was derailed by the policies of the Castro regime, which intentionally prevented people like my parents from leaving Cuba. Although my mother did manage to escape three years later, my father remained stuck for the rest of his life. When he died, 14 years after my departure, the Castro regime prevented me from attending his funeral.
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I am now a professor of history and religion at Yale University.
And I long for justice. Instead of seeing Raúl Castro shaking President Obama’s hand, I would like to see him, his brother, and all their henchmen in a court room, being tried for crimes against humanity. I also long for genuine freedom in Cuba. Instead of seeing his corrupt and abusive regime rewarded with favors from the United States, I long for the day when that regime is replaced by a genuine democracy with a free-market economy.
The fact that I am an historian makes me see things differently, too. I earn my living by analyzing texts and documents, sifting evidence, and separating facts from lies and myths. I have been trained to read between the lines, and to discern the hidden meaning in all rhetoric.
While much attention has been paid to President Obama’s Cuba policy speech, hardly any has been paid to dictator Raúl Castro’s shorter speech, broadcast in Cuba at exactly the same time.
In his spiteful address, the unelected ruler of Cuba said that he would accept President Obama’s gesture of good will “without renouncing a single one of our principles.”
What, exactly, are those principles?
Like his brother Fidel, whose name he invoked, and like King Louis XIV of France, whose name he dared not mention, Raúl speaks of himself as the embodiment of the state he rules, as evidenced by his mention of “our principles,” which assumes that all Cubans share his mindset. Raúl claims that he is defending his nation’s “self-determination,” “sovereignty,” and “independence,” and also dares to boast that his total control of the Cuban economy should be admired as “social justice.”
In reality, he is defending is his role as absolute monarch.
Cubans have no freedom of speech or assembly. The press is tightly controlled, and there is no freedom to establish political parties or labor unions. Travel is strictly controlled, as is access to the internet. There is no economic freedom and no elections. According to the Associated Press, at least 8,410 dissidents were detained in 2014.
These are the principles that Raúl Castro is unwilling to renounce, which have driven nearly 20 percent of Cuba’s population into exile.
Unfortunately, these are also the very principles that President Obama ratified as acceptable, which will govern Cuba for years to come.
Although President Obama did acknowledge the lack of “freedom and openness” in Cuba, and also hinted that Raúl Castro should loosen his grip on the Cuban people, his rhetoric was as hollow as Raúl’s. He didn’t make any demands for immediate, genuine reforms in Cuba. Equally hollow was his reference to Cuba’s “civil society.” He made no mention of the constant abuse heaped on Cuba’s non-violent dissidents, or of the fact that the vast majority of them have pleaded with him to tighten rather than ease existing sanctions on the Castro regime.
But it was not just what was left unsaid that made his rhetoric hollow. Some of the “facts” cited in support of his policy changes were deliberate distortions of history that lay most of the blame for Cuba’s problems on the United States.
Among the most glaring of these falsehoods was the claim that “our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe.” The real culprit is not the embargo, but the Castro regime itself, which actively prevents Cubans from accessing the internet. Cuba has been purchasing all sorts of cutting-edge technology from other countries for use by its government, its military, its spies, and its tourist industry.
If studied carefully, what President Obama’s artful speech reveals is a fixation on the failures of US foreign policy, and on his role as a righteous reformer. Moreover, the speech is riddled with false assumptions and wishful thinking.
Does President Obama really believe that somehow, magically, an influx of US diplomats, tourists, and dollars is going to force Raúl Castro and his military junta to give up their beloved repressive “principles”?
Dream on. President Obama knows all too well that the Castro regime has had diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the world and hosted millions of tourists from democratic nations for many years. Such engagement has brought no freedom or prosperity to the Cuban people. He also knows that tourism has only served to create an apartheid state in which foreigners enjoy privileges that are denied to the natives.
President Obama’s disingenuous formulation of a new Cuba policy has been praised by many around the world, but will be challenged by the legislative branch of the government of these United States.
Thank God and the Constitution for that.
The US people and the Cuban people deserve a much better future and a much better interpretation of history than those offered to them in President Obama’s shameful speech.
Born in Havana, Cuba, Carlos Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University.
This article first appeared in the Washington Post.