I recently visited Cuba. Fidel’s image is everywhere–on fences, building façades, barroom walls–you name it. Posters touting “52 years of the Revolution” are plentiful. Ché Guevara is a god–he’s memorialized in a giant open-air complex in central Cuba (where the decisive battle of the revolution was won), and a museum and an eternal flame mark his remains.
Likenesses of Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl–who fought beside him to take Cuba in 1959 and now serves as president–are less plentiful. But he has been much in the news lately, sparring with President Barack Obama over human rights abuses.
On the Cuban side, there’s the case of the “Cuban Five.” In the late 1990s, five men infiltrated Cuban- American exile organizations that opposed the Castro government, including Brothers to the Rescue, which regularly made unauthorized flights over Cuba to drop leaflets. The five are jailed in the U.S., on charges ranging from spying to acting as unregistered foreign agents and conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States. In Cuba, they’re considered political prisoners and martyrs. Their pictures are every bit as numerous as those of Fidel, and are clearly being used to keep the spirit of revolution and the cause of Cuban justice–as the Castro government sees it–alive.
Castro and company aren’t the only ones who think these guys were unjustly accused and got a bad deal in the U.S. courts. A three-judge panel of the 11th circuit court (later overruled) threw out sentences for three of them, finding the punishment too harsh because the government had never proved that they had traded in ”top secret” intelligence. Robert A. Pastor, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America, put it this way in The New York Times: ”Holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran. You’d need a lot more than a good lawyer to be taken seriously.”
My delegation, sponsored by the U.S. Women & Cuba Collaboration, which hopes to not only end the U.S. trade embargo but get the Cuban Five pardoned, met with their mothers and wives. The women publicize the fact that they have been denied visas for visitation in the U.S. jails, where their loved ones are held, and campaign for their release. Their heartfelt pleas seem hopeless as the years slip away and nothing changes.
Across the Florida straits, Obama recently denounced the Castro government for human rights abuses in the wake of the death of a jailed hunger striker and reported government crackdowns on political protest. Using his harshest words to date, Obama accused Cuba of a “clenched fist” policy toward “the aspirations of the Cuban people.”
All of this is to say that the honeymoon is over between Presidents Obama and Castro. Right after he was elected, Obama pledged to improve relations with Cuba, and eased some travel restrictions for families. And only a year ago Raúl Castro said, “We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.” No longer.
While the drama plays out over very real human rights questions on both sides, nobody mentions the fact that the next election is always on Washington’s mind. Florida, where militantly anti-Castro Cuban Americans have held political sway since they fled their country in 1959, always looms large. No president is going to aggravate them too much–particularly when Cuba’s human rights record remains dubious at best and dismal in the eyes of many. (Conversely, the feeling in Cuba is that the “Florida Mafia,” as these ex-pats are called, isn’t interested in human rights. They just want their estates and mega-business properties back to pursue their pre-revolution exploitation of Cuban people and lands.)
Regardless of which side you come down on, at least for now, we seem destined to continue the 50-plus year dance of mutual animosity between the two countries. The U.S. trade embargo will continue. The war of words won’t abate.
And the families of prisoners on both sides must wait.