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US Deal: Mixed Responses From Cuban Dissidents

Some see thaw as “betrayal”, others as an opportunity to set conditions that Havana must meet.
By IWPR contributors

Cubans of all political persuasions are still coming to terms with the shock announcement that diplomatic relations with the United States are to be restored after half a century.

The rapprochement announced by presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on December 17 includes a prisoner swap in which Havana exchanged American consultant Alan Gross and an unnamed US spy for three Cuban agents. The agreement envisages the opening of embassies, greater freedom of moment and fewer restrictions on financial transfers. Cuba has also agreed to release 53 political prisoners.

Father Mecías Souza Neto, a Catholic priest in central Cuba, noted that the agreement was announced on St Lazarus’s Day – he is Cuba’s most popular saint – and on the birthday of Pope Francis, who was instrumental in facilitating talks.

On the official side, the mood is upbeat. For some like Ana Margarita Zumbado, head of the Central Workers’ Union branch in Cienfuegos province in the far east of Cuba, this is tantamount to outright victory.

“The imperialists have realised that no one can make us give in,” she said. “They have understood that they were losing.”

A more nuanced view was expressed by Mario Brito, writer and director of the Writers’ House in Manicaragua municipality.

“[The announcement] will be a milestone in the history of diplomacy, and is an expression of intelligence,” said Brito, who asked for his affiliation to the Cuban Communist Party to be underlined. “Obama has grown taller in the eyes of Cubans. He has made a move which takes him closer towards becoming a Nobel prize winner.”

On the other side of the political fence, there were sharp divisions.

Guillermo Fariñas, a leading dissident and Sakharov prize-winner, denounced the Washington-Havana agreement as “an act of betrayal”.

Idalberto González Gómez, an opposition elder statesman in the city of Santa Clara, claimed that President Obama had “ingratiated himself” with Raúl and Fidel Castro for domestic political reasons.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said. “I regard it as a betrayal. Now they’ll crush us completely.”

Not everyone took such a negative view of the deal.

“I think it’s positive. I refuse to believe that President Obama will wish to support the Castros’ tyranny in Cuba,” said José Antonio Fornaris, head of the Association for Freedom of the Press.

José Galván Rodríguez, a doctor now in exile in Florida, agreed that Obama was likely to continue supporting human rights and freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Fornaris pointed out that the overall US embargo – still in place pending a Congressional decision – could provide a pressure point for demanding more of Havana.

“I believe the embargo should not be lifted without setting conditions, which should include recognising the opposition and preparing the country for free and democratic elections,” he said.

Others agreed that conditionality was key to making the political rapprochement work for Cubans.

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the largest opposition party, said it would be wrong of Washington to improve commercial linkages with Havana without substantive moves to guarantee basic rights.

David Mauri Cardoso of the banned National Liberal Party fears that an easing of US sanctions could be counterproductive, in that it could allow the Cuban government to avoid embarking on essential economic reforms such as “legal recognition of private property”.

One possible outcome of a thaw in relations could be greater population mobility, with people travelling by legal means rather than escaping Cuba on boats.

Alex, a 25-year-old Havana resident, says his plans to get away will not be altered by the diplomatic shift.

“I don’t have any hope. The United States is now offering Cuba opportunities, but who’s going to ensure the government affords these freedoms to its people?” he said. “Whoever has a chance to leave and doesn’t take full advantage of it must be mad.”

Michel, 32, also intends to leave, but unlike Alex, he could be persuaded to stay if things start changing.

“I like my country; I don’t want to go,” he said. “I’d think about staying if Cuba really became more prosperous.”

Information for this report was contributed by independent journalists Ada Olimpia Becerra, María Elías Mur, Anddy Sierra, Alejandro Tur Valladares and Jaqueline Cutiño.

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