World

Obama's Visit Won't Make Cuba A Democracy Overnight

| by Nik Bonopartis
A street in Old HavanaA street in Old Havana

A decade ago, Cuban exiles would've laughed if someone told them Air Force One would touch down in Cuba, and the next American president would step off to a warm welcome from the country's president and people.

Yet on March 21, President Barack Obama stood just a few feet away from Cuban President Raul Castro on a podium in Havana, both men beaming as they discussed the bright future of Cuban-American relations.

The meeting -- and the sight of an American president in Havana -- was historic. But it was also testament to the human spirit, the power of reconciliation, and the healing properties of time.

Half a century ago, Cuba was the centerpiece of a confrontation that brought the human race the closest it's ever been to nuclear war. Now, travel bans have been lifted, families have been reunited for the first time in decades, and the future promises prosperity for an island nation that's been stuck in the past.

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And yet it's not all champagne and roses, especially for the Cuban people. While they were preparing to host the leader of the free world, their government was cracking down on dissent, arresting dissidents, and warning citizens not to bring up touchy subjects as Obama and a cadre of American lawmakers stroll Havana's streets.

In preparation for Obama's arrival, the Cuban government rounded up more than 500 government critics and engaged in what one human rights activist called "preventive repression."

That activist, Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told The New York Times that the Cuban government was resorting to old tactics "so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here."

Likewise, while Castro was standing just a few feet from Obama, he acted as if the idea of Cuba holding political prisoners was the most absurd, out-of-left-field suggestion.

"Give me a list of political prisoners and I will release them,” Castro, the younger brother of longtime dictator Fidel Castro, told a reporter.

Obama's visit to Cuba represents the cautious friendliness that follows an end to hostilities, but it would be wrong to believe the lifting of a trade embargo is the last obstacle between Cuba and the modern world.

Non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have cataloged a long list of violations. The Cuban government still uses arbitrary detention as a way to harass and intimidate people with the "wrong" views. Despite reconciliation with the U.S. and a stated desire to modernize, Cuban authorities have arrested more people in recent years, not less -- in 2014, the government detained 5,000 more people than it did the year before, HRW noted.

Television stations and newspapers in Cuba are still run by the government, and they're still the primary source of information for most Cubans. Internet access is a luxury few can afford, according to HRW, and sites critical of the government are promptly shut down and their operators smeared.

Identifying human rights abuses in Cuba remains a difficult task, as the government does everything it can to keep human rights monitors out of the country and prevent them from gathering information.

While Obama has said he's hopeful the U.S. can lift its trade embargo on the island nation -- a step that requires the approval of congress -- he acknowledged the obstacles.

“We continue to have serious differences, including on democracy and human rights,” Obama said during his historic visit.

Real change won't happen until Cuba's dictators give up their grip on the country, and no one expects that to happen while they live. At 89 and 84 years old, respectively, Fidel and Raul Castro aren't spring chickens, but it could be another decade -- or longer -- before Cuba is finally free of them.

And then there's the inevitable culture shock that comes with modernization. While the embargo remains in place, American businesses in some sectors have been cleared to do business in Cuba. There is a danger in freedom lagging behind modernization, and reality might look like Starbucks and McDonalds on every other corner, serving a subjugated population. Or major telecom companies arriving in town to offer Cubans the latest smartphones, with browsers that won't show them anything but what the government wants them to see.

Tough times are ahead for the Cuban people, even if there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

"Cuba is certain to lose a fraction of its soul as money works its fascination," The New York Times' Roger Cohen wrote. "All the new malls may do nothing for the miserable fate of dissidents with quaint democratic obsessions."

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Sources: The New York Times (2) (3) (4), Human Rights Watch World Report 2015: Cuba / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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