Yesterday, President Obama formally announced his plan to re-open a U.S. embassy in Cuba at an event held in the Rose Garden in the White House, declaring that he was opening a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries. But while he was saying that “we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” the communist dictatorship in Havana was demonstrating that it had no intention of changing its character in order to justify the enormous boost the infusion of American cash will give the regime. In recent weeks, while the president was preparing to pat himself on the back for ending a policy aimed at isolating the Castro government, the Cuban tyrants arrested a prominent artist who had returned home to test whether Obama’s rapprochement would yield any tangible benefits for those seeking to promote freedom in the island nation. The answer to that query from the president’s new partners was a resounding “no.” The Congress, which is being asked to both fund the new embassy and to lift the embargo on Cuba, should be paying more attention to that arrest than to Obama’s talk about reconciliation.
As the Arts section of the New York Times noted yesterday, performance artist Tania Bruguera returned to her native Cuba last December at the same time as the president’s announcement of his decision to resume diplomatic relations with the island’s communist government. As the newspaper reported, “implicit in this development was the idea that Cuba would gradually loosen up on its policing of public dissent. Ms. Bruguera decided to stage a public performance that would put that to the test.”
Her venue for that test was the Havana Biennial, an arts festival that draws international attention, and to which artists and art critics have flocked. Bruguera used the occasion to perform something she calls “Tatlin #6” in Havana’s Revolution Plaza. It consists of her setting up a microphone and inviting anyone who wanted to participate one minute to speak without censorship. But as soon as Bruguera announced her intentions, she was arrested. She was later released and then staged a marathon reading with supporters of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism at her Havana home. A government-hired road crew set up outside to drown out participants’ voices with jackhammers. Afterwards, she was again taken into custody and questioned for hours.
Bruguera’s fate is not yet decided. The regime would clearly like her to leave the country again but the artist has so far resisted, knowing she would likely be never allowed back home again.
The Times declared her protest a “success” since it overshadowed the festival and exposed the realities of Cuba that the government and the arts establishment in that country wish the world to ignore. That may well be true but unfortunately one of those who continue to ignore Cuban realities is the man in the White House, who worries more about American policy being “imprisoned” by the need to go on resisting Cuban tyranny than the actual imprisonment of dissidents in that country.
The problem with Obama’s decision is not so much that he is trying to deal with Cuba; it’s that he has gotten virtually nothing in return for the economic bounty and legitimacy that U.S. recognition will give one of the last vestiges of communism in the world. Like his negotiations with Iran, the president cared more about getting an agreement at any price than obtaining concessions from Cuba that might have justified the move (other, that is, than the release of American hostage Alan Gross). The repression of Tania Bruguera is just one small example of how Cuban tyranny operates in a country whose prisons are filled with dissenters. Though the president may argue that a U.S. diplomatic presence in Havana could aid dissenters, his embrace of the regime, without forcing it to change, undermines any notion that America will make much of a difference on the ground. The only thing we know for sure is that if the president gets his way, the regime will be enriched (along with those American businesses that choose to profit from the relationship) and that ordinary Cubans will remain silenced and impoverished.
That is why Congress should resist the president’s appeal to lift the embargo. If Cuba wants the benefits of relations with the United States, it must cease imprisoning people like Bruguera and allow genuine freedoms. In the absence of such a shift, Congress must maintain the embargo and refuse to fund the new embassy. Though foreign policy remains the province of the executive, in this case the power of the purse allows the legislative branch to take up a task that the president has shown no interest in pursuing: defending American principles and values.