Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Workers near the Capitolio building. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — The issues of democracy and human rights in Cuba are unavoidable items of Obama’s agenda during his visit. He underscored this on Monday during his statements for the press and also indirectly, when he met with US executives and self employed Cubans.

Bruno Rodriguez, our effusive foreign minister, gave a bad impression with his statements on Wednesday, March 17. He again replied to criticisms with that tired argument that no longer convinces anyone, to the effects that “our point of views on democracy and human rights differ.” Apparently, democracy has become an abstract and ambiguous concept.

The same holds for human rights. For the rest of the world, they are universal, and our government, which signed the UN declaration, claims to have a different perspective on some of them (the most important and decisive, incidentally).

The freedom to carry out financial activities without so many restrictions, respect towards freedom of expression and access to the media, the right to organize into political parties on the basis of ideology and common goals and the sovereign right to choose our leaders from a range of options and through a direct vote aren’t trifles, they are top priorities.

We have full and free access to education and health, that’s true. They have their deficiencies, but they are there. All Cubans also have social security, but it’s dreadful – any neoliberal country has a better welfare system. I am speaking of what we see in practice, not the statistics. It’s also very positive that they should vaccinate kids for free and that civil defense mechanisms are effective when a hurricane strikes. But none of this justifies or requires the violation of other basic rights.

Is a people’s revolution aimed at “achieving full justice,” as Marti once said, or is it a question of trading some rights for others? Must we renounce some human rights in order to enjoy others? This would seem to have been the case to date.

Obama was both clear and precise during his meeting with the business sector: change in Cuba must come from Cubans. If something hasn’t worked well for 50 years, we have to change it. This holds for the blockade and the socio-political system established by the revolution. Those weren’t his exact words, but that was the essence of his statements.

The entrance to a “bodega” neighborhood store where Cubans can purchase subsidized rations. Photo: Juan Suarez

It is commendable that Cubans should want to preserve the achievements of socialism, whatever changes may come. People’s fears that these will be lost with the changes are justified. Obama spoke of sowing confidence and even urged Cubans to follow in the footsteps of other successful countries (not the United States, to avoid apprehension). It’s a shame that such actions aren’t decided by Cubans in general but by a tiny group of powerful people.

That is why the issue of democracy and human rights is crucial. A young, self-employed woman described her business (tourist orientation) to the president and expressed her wish to grow. When asked by Obama what she needed to achieve that, she replied that a bit of everything (capital, knowledge, access to the Internet, etc.). She failed to mention the main thing, however: that she needs the Cuban State to allow her business to become a company, have a legal status and the ability to expand competitively. The legal framework needed for this does not yet exist in Cuba.

Cuba is opening up to the United States and the world, but it is still afraid of opening up to Cubans. No foreigner who makes a profit in Cuba can demand additional rights, but Cubans ought to be able to. That is what the government fears, any kind of empowerment of emerging social sectors.

Again, a different view of democracy should not result in the absence of democracy. Nor should a different view of human rights result in the violation of human rights, particularly basic ones. They are so basic that humanity had only to secure them to bring about all others. They could not have chosen a clumsier argument.

I know certain formalities and protocol obliges Obama to passively listen to such an affront on reason and intelligence and to keep all harsh words to himself. His one option is to express a difference of opinion and address our people sincerely, as he is doing.

Bruno Rodriguez insists that the cosmetic changes now underway at a snail’s pace express and fulfill our people’s will. He insists the full range of needed measures was already adopted in 1959, that we enjoy the purest form of democracy and the human rights that are truly worth having.

He insists on this, but he doesn’t even believe it himself. It would make for a more serious and respectable argument if they simply said they didn’t know another way to maintain their achievements, or if they said that, were a socialist formula with more democracy to be presented to them, they would consider it.

Hairdresser students practicing on grandmothers. Photo: Juan Suarez

Obama is helping our people a lot by encouraging dialogue, normal relations and the end of the blockade, for avoiding tensions facilitates change and, this way, we can gradually eliminate that which is stifling us.

I see several possible roads ahead of us: moving from the orthodox socialism we have towards a Chinese-styled market socialism, moving towards a social democratic and market socialism or taking the leap towards the purest form of capitalism, under the democracy of money. The one thing that’s certain is that we cannot go on as we are today.

As I have an aversion for all extremes (perhaps because I’m fed up with extremists, or because my beloved homeland has only essayed extreme positions), I prefer the second option. That’s my opinion. I know many Cubans reject anything smelling of socialism, without even listening to arguments. I understand them. But I also know that many will feel more comfortable if the changes, while satisfying all demands, weren’t so radical. That’s something even Obama realized in the short time he’s been in Cuba.

We Cubans neither should nor need to believe that Obama wants to put an end to the blockade and act on our behalf, as a people, out of sheer altruism. In the best of cases, it would be a mix of this with the wish to make history, the interests of his party and the interests of his nation as a regional and world power.

What we should and need to believe is that our wagon has been stuck on the line for decades and we need to attach it to the first locomotive that passes by. To sell out our country, that’s unthinkable. To continue stuck in time, that’s beginning to feel like suicide.

We must make sure we do not become derailed as we go.


9 thoughts on “Obama’s Visit: Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba

  • Are you ducking serious? Nobody? Wow those mojitos that you drank were good. I wish I can have some so I can forget the horrible things that they did to me and my fellowship Cubans specially my brothers than were in concentration camps for being gays,

  • Choose to raise in Cuba? If you “choose” that long enough you won’t be making any choices for them- and they won’t be making any choices either.

  • Is it necessary to make personal attacks in order to defend the Castros adequately?

  • The Cuban economy? Is that like learning shipbuilding by studying the Titanic?

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