Why US ‘Engagement’ With Cuba Has Been Deadly for Human Rights Activists
John Suarez /
President Obama’s engagement policy with the Castro regime, announced in 2009, has led to a massive increase in arbitrary detentions, violence against activists and the deaths of high-profile opposition leaders under circumstances that point to extrajudicial executions carried out by Cuban state security.
The White House not only began to loosen sanctions on the Castro regime in April 2009, but also refused to meet in June 2009 with the winners of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award, who happened to be five Cuban dissidents that year.
It was the first time in five years the U.S. president did not meet with award laureates. In December 2009, the Castro regime responded to the outreach when it took Alan Gross hostage and the Obama administration responded with initial silence. It took American diplomats 25 days to visit with the arbitrarily detained American.
These signals would have deadly consequences for the Cuban democratic opposition. Rising levels of violence against nonviolent activists and the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (2012) and Harold Cepero Escalante (2012), followed promptly.
The administration responded to the taking of Gross (2009) and the death of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo on Feb. 23, 2010, by further loosening sanctions on Cuba in January 2011. The number of high-profile activists who died under suspicious circumstances after the second round of loosening of sanctions should give engagement advocates pause in their optimism with the new policy.
Machete attacks by regime officials against activists began in June 2013, the same month as secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Castro regime started.
On Feb. 3, 2015, Rosa María Payá, in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued an indictment on the indifference of the US government and the international community:
On 22 July 2012, Cuban State Security detained the car in which my father, Oswaldo Payá, and my friend Harold Cepero, along with two young European politicians, were traveling. All of them survived, but my father disappeared for hours only to reappear dead, in the hospital in which Harold would die without medical attention. The Cuban government wouldn’t have dared to carry out its death threats against my father if the U.S. government and the democratic world had been showing solidarity. If you turn your face, impunity rages. While you slept, the regime was conceiving their cleansing of the pro-democracy leaders to come. While you sleep, a second generation of dictators is planning with impunity their next crimes.
Two months later Rosa María Payá, and other activists were harassed first at the airport by Panamanian officials and later at the VII Summit of the Americas for protesting that the United States, along with the democracies of the region, invited Raul Castro to the summit. Castro arrived with a huge entourage of state security agents, then proceeded to interrupt and shut down official civil society gatherings at the summit to silence dissent. Cuban pro-democracy activists were physically assaulted in a public park when they tried to lay a wreath before a bust of Jose Marti suffering broken bones and black eyes.
Meanwhile, President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro and declared the goal of regime change in Cuba was no longer U.S. policy. Now, violence in Cuba escalates each Sunday as men and women of the democratic resistance suffering brutal beatings and detentions.