On January 1, 2009, the Cuban government celebrated the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara’s triumphant march into Havana that marked the end of the reign of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and the beginning of the Cuban revolution. The occasion was quite frankly sad, not just for what it said about a revolution that has persisted despite its failures, but also for the persistence of U.S. policy that seems almost designed to prop up the Castro brothers.
The two phenomena—a regime and a policy both frozen in time—co-exist in mutual dependency. The Cuban government and its geriatric leadership (average age over 70) has been able to blame the chronic failures of its failed economic system on U.S. policy, deflecting legitimate popular frustration with food shortages, lack of medicine, lack of opportunities, and economic stagnation.
At the same time, the January 1 celebration came just 20 days before Fidel Castro will see the inaugeration of 11th president of the country that since the early 1960s has sought his removal from power by all means possible. Assasination plots, an invasion by former countrymen, isolation, and an economic embargo established first in 1960 and tightened in 1996 with the passage of the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act (otherwise known as the Helms-Burton Law) are among the least surreal.
The Helms-Burton law established strict conditions under which U.S. economic and diplomatic relations would be restored with Cuba. These included the release of political prisoners, restoration of civil and human rights and a credible commitment to free and fair elections. In the last eight years President George W. Bush has added new restrictions limiting the remittances Cuban-Americans can send to the island and their travel to the island.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand the stated goals of these restrictions: denying the Cuban government the resources to repress its own citizens. Nor do I believe in a wholesale lifting of the embargo in response to the minimalist reforms initiated by Raúl Castro last year. Over 200 political prisoners remain in Cuban jails. Arrests and detentions for acts as simple as signing a petition, expressing opinions publicly or gathering in groups to discuss politics remain a daily occurrence. These are not the U.S.’s or even President Bush’s fault.
But the Cuban regime and U.S. policy have real victims. In the case of the former, it’s the democratic activists and their families who have courageously decided to stay on the island and struggle for political change at great professional and even personal cost. And in the latter it’s Cuban families, some of them balseros, who have braved their own trials to now find themselves cut off from their own relatives. On the 50th anniversary of the revolution these are the people worth considering—not the liver-spotted leaders still sitting on the Council of Ministers or a commitment to a policy that has lasted 10 different presidents. How do we change their daily reality?