If Secretary of State John Kerry is serious when he says the Obama administration will keep pressing for democracy and human rights in Cuba, this is the least he should do: Invite Cuban dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana when he travels for the historic event there on Aug. 14.
It sounds like a trivial gesture, but it’s not. Cuba’s dictatorship — yes, even those of us who don’t oppose the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties must call it what it is — refuses to have direct contact or even participate in events attended by peaceful oppositionists.
Anybody in Cuba who dares to organize with others to demand free elections or freedom of speech is considered a “U.S. mercenary” and officially treated as a non-person. When foreign embassies celebrate their national holidays and decide to invite dissidents, the Castro regime sends pro-government artists or state-salaried “intellectuals,” but no government officials.
For the Obama administration, inviting Cuban dissidents such as the Ladies in White or other well-known peaceful opponents to the Aug. 14 U.S. flag-raising at the embassy in Havana — scheduled to be attended by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez — would be proof that it’s not bluffing when it says it will maintain its commitment to democracy and human rights in Cuba.
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It would also be a way for Obama to correct the mistake he made in breaking a longstanding U.S. promise to peaceful opponents that Washington would not make a deal with the Cuban regime without consulting them. Cuba’s opposition was caught by surprise by Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement of the U.S.-Cuba normalization talks and lost political clout internally by not being able to claim even a minor role in their outcome.
In a telephone interview from Cuba, well-known Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas told me that, so far, neither he nor any fellow peaceful opponent he knows has been invited to the Aug. 14 ceremony. If Kerry invites dissidents, it would be the first time in his memory that the Cuban government and opponents would mingle in a social event, he said.
“It would be a step forward,” Farinas told me. “The U.S. government would send a signal that despite the fact that they didn’t take into account the opinion of most oppositionists when they negotiated this, they still support Cuban democrats and democracy. And if Cuban officials don’t attend, the whole world will know which side is the intolerant side.”
Some Cuban dissidents have a bad feeling about the timing of Kerry’s trip because it coincides with a long-scheduled Aug. 12-18 summit of Cuba’s internal opposition and Cuban exiles in Puerto Rico, which will be attended by most dissident leaders, including Farinas. The U.S. State Department knew about the Puerto Rico meeting long ago because it helped the Cuban dissidents get U.S. visas to attend it, they say.
Could it be that Kerry timed his visit to Cuba while internal opposition leaders are gone, and avoid an early confrontation with the Cuban regime that could spoil his diplomatic fiesta? Some in the opposition wonder, and others say Kerry has no excuse not to invite oppositionists, because there are 11 members of the peaceful opposition — including Oscar Elias Biscet and Marta Beatriz Roque — who are barred from traveling abroad, and will thus be on the island that day.
Asked whether Kerry will invite dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony in Havana, a State Department spokeswoman emailed me that “we are working on the itinerary for the secretary’s trip … and we have not yet determined the lists of invitees for the different possible events.”
My opinion: Not inviting the dissidents to the main ceremony would be a major mistake, and it would make a travesty of Obama’s stated commitment to continue pressing for fundamental freedoms in Cuba.
Obama has often said — rightly — that after five decades of a U.S. policy of confrontation that hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something new, and engage with the Cuban regime. But he has always added that the new engagement with Cuba “will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms.”
Well, the first part of his plan has already been carried out, and he has already engaged with the Cuban dictatorship. Now, it’s time to engage — or re-engage — with Cuba’s peaceful opposition.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.