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    The Castros’ New Friend

    The Castros’ New Friend
    [14-05-2015 22:57:34]
    James Kirchick

    (www.miscelaneasdecuba.net).- Obama’s change of policy helps Cuba’s
    oppressive regime, not its democratic dissidents
    I’ve visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the
    only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal
    detector uponentering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately
    after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors
    line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband —
    counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given
    to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

    Contrary to popular conception, traveling to Cuba as an American was not
    difficult before President Barack Obama’s announcement last December of
    “the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years.” All
    anyone had to do was transit through a third country and not disclose
    his visit to Cuba upon reentering through U.S. customs. It was the aura
    of the embargo that dissuaded Americans. Moreover, there have long been
    myriad legal exceptions for Americans to travel to Cuba: They merely had
    to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign
    Assets Control (OFAC) under one of twelve broad, rather vague, permitted
    categories, such as “educational” and “research.” “Tourism” as such was
    and remains prohibited. But since January, travelers to Cuba need not
    obtain any OFAC license at all. This essentially means that any American
    who wants to venture to Cuba, including those who plan to do nothing but
    sit on the beach all day and dance salsa all night, are now free to do so.

    The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s
    oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation. Preventing anything
    that may pose a threat to its continued existence — any material that
    might germinate the seed of independent thought within an individual
    Cuban’s mind — from making its way onto the island is therefore a
    priority. In light of the increased number of tourists visiting Cuba
    since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on American
    travel, a number that is expected only to grow with time, the Castro
    regime has had to beef up its capabilities in this field. But judging
    from the headlines of the Cuban Communist-party newspaper, Granma, which
    boasted of the dramatic rise in tourism on a recent cover of its weekly
    English edition, Havana doesn’t seem to mind.

    Some four months after President Barack Obama made his announcement, I
    visited Cuba, wanting to find out what its democratic dissidents had to
    say about the new winds from Washington. Given the course of American
    foreign policy over the past six years, which has seen Washington
    “reset” relations with a variety of implacably hostile regimes, the
    proclamation of a new policy toward Cuba was hardly surprising. Obama
    had signaled his intention to effect such a transformation as early as
    the 2008 presidential campaign, when he vowed to negotiate directly with
    a host of American adversaries and declared that “we’ve been engaged in
    a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change
    it.” Though Cuba-watchers assumed a shift of some sort was coming, the
    way in which the new policy came about and its list of particulars took
    many by surprise.

    Obama’s December 17 declaration followed 18 months of secret
    negotiations between the president and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl
    Castro, who took the reins of power after his older brother Fidel fell
    ill in 2008. Even senior State Department officials involved in Latin
    American affairs were kept in the dark about the negotiations, which
    were led by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in his mid
    30s with no official diplomatic experience but who does possess an MFA
    in creative writing from New York University. This was the man Obama put
    in charge of negotiations with Cold War-hardened Cuban Communist
    apparatchiks, and it shows.

    In exchange for the release of Alan Gross, an elderly USAID contractor
    arrested and accused of espionage in 2009, the United States released
    the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five,” a posse of spies sent
    to infiltrate the Miami Cuban-exile community in the late 1990s.
    Washington insisted that Gross was not a spy, and so in order to avoid
    tying his release to the freeing of the Cuban agents, Havana agreed to
    deliver a longtime American-intelligence asset it had imprisoned.
    Gross’s release from a prison sentence he ought never to have served in
    the first place and that nearly killed him was officially presented as
    an unrelated act of goodwill.

    This swap of prisoners was the only part of Obama’s rapprochement in
    which Havana had to reciprocate, and lopsidedly at that. Moreover, it
    was just a prelude to the real meat of the Obama announcement: a
    loosening of the trade and travel restrictions America has imposed on
    Cuba, a collection of measures enforced through six statutes
    colloquially known as the “embargo.” The relaxed travel policies, the
    pending opening of embassies, the removal of Cuba from the State
    Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, the restoration of limited
    economic activity — all longtime goals of the Cuban regime — were
    declared without any corresponding demands that Havana change its
    conduct. Indeed, in his speech announcing the new Cuba policy, Obama
    essentially admitted that he would have ushered in these unilateral
    changes much earlier had it not been for the “obstacle” that the
    imprisonment of an American citizen presented to his grand plans. To
    fend off accusations that it was giving away something for nothing, the
    administration claimed that the regime would release 53 political
    prisoners identified on a State Department list. In January, after weeks
    of saying it would not publicize the list, State provided the names to
    select members of Congress, revealing that some of the individuals had
    been freed before December 17, others were close to finishing their
    sentences, and a few had already been rearrested. Indeed, in Cuba, as in
    all authoritarian societies, the door to prison is a revolving one. In
    March, 610 people were arrested on political charges.

    Not only were American diplomats with expertise in the region excluded
    from the negotiations (the better to prevent them from leaking against a
    policy shift some of them might have considered ill advised), so were
    many of the island’s political dissidents and independent journalists.
    “I can’t understand why they didn’t ask for preconditions,” Antonio
    Rodiles says of America’s negotiating posture.

    I spoke with the American-educated political activist at his home. As
    with most of the meetings I had with dissidents, I showed up at his
    front door unannounced in the evening. Planning appointments in advance
    is logistically difficult and inadvisable security-wise. Internet access
    is extremely limited (Cuba has the lowest ratio of computers to
    inhabitants in the Western hemisphere) and is available almost
    exclusively in hotels and embassies. At a price of about $4.50 per hour,
    it is far beyond the means of most Cubans. Arranging meetings beforehand
    by phone, meanwhile, attracts the attention of the security police, who
    are presumed to listen to everything. Rodiles did not seem at all
    surprised that an American journalist would visit him at 10 p.m.;
    late-night knocks on the door (from foreign well-wishers or worse) seem
    to be a regular occurrence.

    It’s not only the Cuban security services that monitor dissidents;
    nearly all of Cuban society is primed to serve as the regime’s eyes and
    ears through the proliferation of local Committees for the Defense of
    the Revolution. Established by Castro in 1960 shortly after he took
    power, they are dubbed the “civil rearguard for the vanguard of the
    militias . . . in the struggle against the internal and external enemy.”
    Combining elements of both the Gestapo and the Stasi (children are
    encouraged to report on their parents if they see anything suspicious,
    and neighbors are expected to rat out friends who might be planning an
    escape), CDRs exist on literally every block across the country (over 8
    million of Cuba’s 11 million citizens are members) and monitor the
    activities of each and every individual in a neighborhood. The CDR
    emblem could not be more blatant: a cartoon Cyclops with a giant eye
    raising a sword above his head. Initially, Castro praised
    his cederistas, as committee members are known, as “1 million gags” for
    their ability to silence regime opponents, whom he ritually describes as
    subhuman. “It is impossible that the worms and parasites can make their
    moves if, on their own, the people . . . keep an eye on them,” he has
    declared. One sees CDR signs on all types of buildings across the country.

    Cuban dissidents are used to receiving guests and know that they’re
    being watched, and I was generously welcomed by the Cubans I met. The
    one exception was a young activist who was obviously afraid when I
    showed up at his door on a Sunday evening. He politely made it clear
    that he wished for me to leave his home immediately. He had somewhere to
    be, he said, an assertion that, judging by my finding him shirtless on
    the couch watching television, was highly unlikely. But it was his home
    I had entered, and his life he was risking, and so I didn’t protest.

    Rodiles studied physics and mathematics at Florida State University in
    Tallahassee yet ultimately decided to return to his homeland to fight
    for democracy. He is the main coordinator of a civil-society group
    composed of writers, artists, and other professionals called “Citizen
    Demand for Another Cuba,” aimed at persuading the Cuban government to
    ratify a series of United Nations covenants on human rights. “They just
    started negotiating,” he says of the American government in a bewildered
    tone. “They didn’t involve the Cubans from outside or here inside, and I
    didn’t understand why they did it that way. If they really want a change
    they’re going to see that nothing’s going to change.”

    Rodiles takes inspiration from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which
    inspired the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia and other
    human-rights groups to form behind the Iron Curtain. That accord, at
    least officially, committed the Soviet Union and its satellites to
    respect human rights, and it provided dissidents such as Václav Havel
    and Lech Walesa a public benchmark by which to hold the Communist
    regimes to account. Genuine political change in Cuba would require
    constitutional reform, as the Cuban constitution permits individual
    freedom only insofar as such liberties don’t threaten the Communist
    party as “the superior leading force of society and of the state.”
    Wilfredo Vallin, a leader of the non-governmental Cuban Law Association,
    told me that, “if Cuba ratifies the pacts it would be forced to change
    its constitution.” Rodiles despairs that there will be no such American
    pressure put upon Cuba to do so, however, as Obama’s aspiration seems to
    be normalization at all costs. Restoring full diplomatic ties with
    Havana has come to be a legacy project for the president, who views it
    as his duty to right America’s many perceived wrongs. “The Obama
    administration already has an agenda, and they don’t want to change,”
    Rodiles sighs. “They got advice from some people that they think the
    better way is to, in some way, legitimize the totalitarian system.”

    In light of his own predicament, Rodiles is right to be suspicious of
    the administration’s tactics. Less than two weeks after Obama
    triumphantly announced a new chapter in America’s relationship with
    Cuba, Rodiles was arrested steps from his front door on the way to a
    free-speech demonstration in central Havana. A high wall surrounds his
    home, but it’s not high enough to block the two cameras posted on
    telephone poles across the street that he says monitor his house 24/7.

    I ask Rodiles how his campaign is progressing, and he says that about
    2,000 people have thus far signed a petition to the government insisting
    upon its ratification of international human-rights agreements. It’s a
    relatively small number for a country with some 11 million inhabitants,
    though Charter 77, it should be noted, had only 242 initial signatories,
    in a country that was a few million people larger. Simply signing such a
    document immediately brings one under suspicion; it is an act requiring
    remarkable courage.

    One of the most courageous people I met on the island was Berta Soler,
    leader of the Ladies in White. Formed in 2003, Damas de Blanco, as it is
    known in Spanish, is a coalition of wives, sisters, daughters, and other
    female relatives of imprisoned political dissidents. Their protests are
    regularly met with violence by regime-backed mobs, which drag the women
    by their hair through the streets. (The regime exports this sort of
    thuggery; at last month’s Summit of the Americas in Panama, a horde of
    Castro supporters descended on a group of Cuban non-governmental
    activists, beating them to the point that Panamanian police had to
    intervene.) The organization’s founder, Laura Pollán, created the group
    after her husband, a leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal party, was
    arrested during the 2003 crackdown known as the “Black Spring.” Pollán
    died under mysterious circumstances in 2011, the famed Cuban health-care
    system having failed first to accurately diagnose her dengue fever and
    then to provide her adequate care.

    Like many of the Cubans I meet, Soler takes great pride in making the
    most of what little she owns: Her tiny flat is decorated with plants and
    various other tchotchkes. A framed photograph of her meeting with Pope
    Francis outside St. Peter’s Basilica graces the wall; her dog nips at my
    feet. A vivacious Afro-Cuban, Soler lives in a decrepit, concrete
    housing block, part of an expanse of apartments on the outer reaches of
    Havana so vast that neighborhoods are divided by “zone” numbers. The
    crumbling scenery stretches in all directions, bleak and limitless, like
    a setting for one of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian short stories.

    One way to think of Cuba is as a giant public-housing project. A place
    where everyone is a ward of the state, and where private enterprise is
    next to nonexistent, the country breeds similar social pathologies.
    Walking through the outskirts of Havana and other unfashionable places
    where tourists rarely tread, one sees a great number of aimless people
    without any sort of vocation. They just hang out. “Cubans don’t go to
    work to produce but to sustain,” Soler says. This is not an indictment
    of the individual Cuban, who would work were meaningful work available,
    but of a regime that wants to keep its people listless.

    “The government sells a lot of alcohol to occupy the minds of the
    people,” Soler tells me, an observation that makes a lot of sense once
    you’ve spent a few days in Cuba. Alcohol is plentiful and cheap. In the
    poor provincial city of Pinar del Rio, about a two-hour drive west of
    Havana, I saw a boy no older than 13 walking the streets with a
    half-empty bottle of beer. A discotheque there was, on a Saturday night,
    full of people ranging in age from mid teens to 40s; a bottle of Havana
    Club sets you back $6. Subsidizing the production of cheap alcohol so as
    to keep the population inebriated (and therefore distracted) is one of
    many tools that the Cuban regime learned from its erstwhile Soviet
    benefactor. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut production of
    vodka, increased its cost, and prohibited the sale of it before
    lunchtime. Some historians have speculated that reducing alcohol
    consumption, a cushion to dull the pain of everyday life, led Russians
    to more quickly understand the misery of their plight, unintentionally
    accelerating the Soviet Union’s demise.

    Like Rodiles, Soler is highly critical of the Obama administration’s
    caving in to the Castros. “Every deal should be conditioned. America has
    to put conditions. If you are giving, you have to receive, and for the
    moment the American government is receiving nothing,” she says. Soler
    says that there has been no letup in the harassment of dissidents;
    regime agents smeared one member of her group with tar at a peaceful
    protest held in February. “We are in the same position or even worse,”
    she thinks, as the Obama administration steamrolls forward with its
    normalization plans while asking for nothing in return.

    Supporters of restoring relations with Cuba insist that, in the long
    run, it will prove detrimental to the Castro regime by opening up the
    country to Western influences and economic investment. This has long
    been the point made by liberals, libertarians, and even some
    conservative opponents of the embargo, who, unlike many leftist
    opponents of longstanding American Cuba policy, harbor no sympathy for
    the regime. But when I ask Soler whether increased American investment
    and more visitors will help people such as herself, she is adamant in
    her response. Lifting the embargo in exchange for concrete reforms like
    legalizing independent media and ending restrictions on free speech
    would make sense, she avers. But lifting it without such conditions, she
    tells me, is “beneficial to the government, not the Cuban citizens.
    Money is coming in and it’s going straight to the government. Regular
    Cubans don’t touch it.”

    In his speech announcing the policy shift, President Obama declared
    that, “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up
    for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move
    into the 21st century.” The impracticality of this assertion does not
    become fully apparent until one visits Cuba and comes to appreciate how
    its peculiar economy functions.

    The first thing to understand about the Cuban economy is that the
    government controls nearly all forms of economic activity, with the
    exception of some black-market activities like prostitution. “In Cuba,
    nobody does business with Cubans. They do business with the Castro
    family,” says Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based
    Center for a Free Cuba. Foreign companies do not hire their own workers
    but are assigned them by the government, which acts as middleman.
    Furthermore, companies do not pay their workers directly, but rather
    compensate the government, which decides how much money to dispense to
    its subjects. The Cuban economic system is essentially one of indentured
    servitude, with the government loaning out its citizens for massive profit.

    In order to prevent ordinary Cubans from acquiring and accumulating
    capital, the regime has cleverly instituted a two-currency system. One
    currency, the convertible peso (CUC), is pegged to the dollar and used
    by tourists to pay for hotels, meals, taxis, and luxury goods available
    only in special stores inaccessible to regular Cubans. Visiting Cuba,
    foreigners will never need to come into contact with any currency other
    than the CUC. Few Cubans, however, receive CUCs. In addition to their
    ration books — used to acquire a meager amount of staples such as rice
    and cooking oil — Cubans also receive monthly salaries, averaging $19
    (less than half the cost of living). They are paid in the Cuban peso
    (CUP), equivalent to about 4 cents. These CUPs can be used to splurge on
    the occasional extra pair of underwear or to purchase pizza at a food
    stand. As they are convertible only into CUCs, CUPs are worthless
    outside the country.

    The dual-currency system is the basis of the country’s two-tiered
    economic structure, dividing Cubans with access to the far more valuable
    CUCs from those who earn only CUPs. “Those in the peso-only economy are
    completely dependent on the government, which is in control of more than
    85 percent of the total economy,” John Kavulich, president of the
    U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, told Bloomberg
    Businessweek recently. With these two currencies, and with government
    ownership of industries as well as of the tourist trade, the regime has
    ensured that the coming influx of American dollars will fall into its
    coffers. “The system is cleverly and cynically designed to guarantee the
    fullest exploitation of every Cuban worker for the benefit of the Castro
    pocketbook,” says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights
    Foundation, which for years has sent small undercover delegations into
    Cuba with laptops, cell phones, cameras, and other technical equipment
    to distribute among dissidents and local journalists. (Raúl announced in
    2013 that the regime will scrap the CUC and make the CUP the country’s
    sole currency, though it is unclear when, or even if, this reform will
    happen.)

    Though the Castro regime and its defenders like to blame America for its
    problems, pointing to the embargo as chief culprit, it is not for lack
    of American investment that Cuba is so poor. Cuba under Castro has
    always been a client of another, more economically powerful state that
    is happy to subsidize it for propagandistic or strategic purposes. For
    decades, that sponsor was the Soviet Union, which initially saw value in
    Cuba as a military outpost (and irritant of America) 90 miles off
    Florida’s coast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a
    period of sustained economic decline, which lasted until the arrival of
    Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian regime in Venezuela. Subsidies (amounting to
    about 100,000 barrels of oil a day at half the market price) from the
    oil-rich Venezuelans managed to help Fidel right the ship, but as the
    collapse in commodity prices and disastrous economic mismanagement have
    drastically reduced Caracas’s support for its comrades in Havana, the
    Castro regime has drifted about searching for another patron. Barack
    Obama could not have arrived at a more opportune time.

    The initial charm of Havana is undeniable. To the American, for whom it
    has long been a forbidden place, the city exudes mythology and mystique.
    The vintage cars (over whose noisy engines one must shout the
    destination to drivers), the music of Buena Vista Social Club, an
    atmosphere evocative of Hemingway, women singing in the streets to sell
    their wares — all these cultural touchstones combine to make a heady
    experience. Foreign tourists rave about the city’s rustic and
    “authentic” atmosphere, laud the salsa dancing, and gawk at the 1950s
    Mercury Sun Valleys that clog the roads (for some reason, the plethora
    of Soviet-era Ladas don’t make it into the colorful photo albums
    extolling Cuba’s retro urban cool). Few visitors bother to visit an
    actual Cuban home, and so you won’t hear them coo about the “classic”
    1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have
    one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main
    tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I
    imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out
    sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying
    buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro’s visage and some
    revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I
    watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

    “Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat
    and there’s nothing there,” Berta Soler told me. “If you’re able to find
    it, it’s bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, ‘What am I going to
    eat today?’ and go to sleep thinking ‘What am I going to eat tomorrow?’”
    I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a
    moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a
    canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board,
    the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more
    eager to consume airplane cuisine.

    Experiencing socialism as pure as it exists in the contemporary world,
    one finds something vile about the tendency of so many First World
    leftists, out of a perverse belief that there exists a thrilling
    nobility in involuntary (as opposed to deliberate) poverty, to
    romanticize Cuba. For a state that claims to be classless, Cuba
    ironically has a highly stratified class system. Cuba’s wealthy elite
    represents a smaller and much richer percentage of the country’s
    population (combined net worth of the Castro brothers: $900 million)
    than the elite of a typical developed nation; its poor, consisting of
    the vast majority, meanwhile, are much more destitute.

    “Socially responsible tourism” has long been a fashionable concern.
    There are countless travel websites and guidebooks devoted to the
    concept, which urge explorers to be eco-friendly, patronize local
    businesses rather than international hotel chains, and generally try to
    leave the destination better than they found it. This altruistic pursuit
    is next to impossible in Cuba, ironically one of the most popular
    pilgrimage destinations for the progressive traveler. My first two
    nights in Havana, I stayed at a casa particular, a private home whose
    owner has been permitted to rent out extra rooms to tourists. The
    landlady, a former Russian teacher, related how the government imposes a
    huge monthly tax consisting of a percentage of her earnings in addition
    to a levy that is fixed regardless of how many guests she hosts.

    Aside from the meager number of CUCs that operators of casas
    particulares get to keep, as well as the occasional tips accumulated by
    hotel bellboys and the like, practically all of the money that foreign
    tourists spend in Cuba winds up in the pockets of the regime. The
    government owns outright most of the hotels and maintains at least a 51
    percent stake in resorts that are nominally the property of major
    foreign chains. Taxi drivers are obliged to turn over a fixed amount of
    cash to the government every month, as are the seemingly independent
    mom-‘n’-pop dining establishments. “When you see a private business and
    you see it’s prosperous, they have some relationship with people from
    the elite,” Rodiles explains to me. “Without, it’s impossible.” Socially
    responsible tourism to Cuba is not only a chimera but a perversion of
    the concept.

    The Cuban embargo is not a hardship for the ordinary Cuban. It is, at
    most, an inconvenience for American travelers to Cuba, who cannot use
    their credit or ATM cards in the country and must therefore prepare for
    their visit by making all of their arrangements in advance over the
    Internet and also bring a large amount of cash (preferably euros). This
    was a lesson I learned the hard way, forcing me to ration the relatively
    small amount of cash I brought to the island. The administration has
    said that it will ease restrictions on American financial institutions
    operating in Cuba, which will make things more convenient for American
    travelers and allow them to spend money on the island more easily. But
    few Cubans will ever see that cash.

    That American policy toward Cuba over the past half century has “failed”
    is a widely held assumption. It is accurate, however, only insofar as
    “success” is characterized by the transformation of Cuba into a liberal
    democracy. (By this standard, why is not the rest of the world’s policy
    toward Cuba — which consists of treating it like any other country —
    also judged a “failure”?) Proponents of engagement laud Raúl Castro’s
    easing of travel restrictions, slight opening of the economy, and other
    reforms instituted since he took power in 2008, but they never
    acknowledge the possibility that all of the American pressure and
    isolation leading up to that point might have had something to do with
    the changes.

    To be sure, not all of Cuba’s democratic dissidents oppose the Obama
    administration’s opening. “[The embargo] is only helpful for the
    government,” Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, co-founder of a small,
    independent news agency called Hablemos (Let’s Talk) Press, tells me.
    Pérez gathers information from correspondents across the country and
    regularly uploads it onto the agency’s website during the two-hour daily
    timeslot he’s allotted by the regime to use a foreign embassy’s Internet
    connection. His colleagues occasionally distribute printed newsletters;
    two of them served jail terms for passing out samizdatliterature. Yet
    Pérez’s wife, Margaly, a member of the Ladies in White, disagrees with
    her husband, noting that such division of opinion is common in dissident
    households. This, in itself, is a testament to the vitality of the
    civil, democratic debate that already exists among Cuba’s independent
    thinkers.

    The embargo (long falsely referred to as a “blockade” by the Cuban
    regime and its Western sycophants) has been portrayed as the tool of
    ruthless, embittered Cuban exiles. The “right-wing Miami Cubans” of
    lore, whose “right-wing” views include support for multi-party
    democracy, freedom of speech, and an end to the statist economic system
    in which a family-cum-military syndicate owns practically everything,
    allegedly have, out of vindictiveness, inflicted the embargo upon those
    benighted Cubans who stayed behind. But that’s not the way the
    dissidents I met see the situation. “The problem that Cuba has had isn’t
    the embargo,” Soler tells me. “It’s the system that’s not working. Fidel
    and Raúl just sold a story that’s not true, internationally and
    domestically.”

    The outsize role America plays in the Cuban popular imagination is
    apparent in its embassy, which is unique in ways other than that it is
    officially called an “interests section,” denoting the lack of official
    diplomatic relations. Most of the foreign legations in Havana are
    located in Miramar, a tony area several kilometers from the capital’s
    center. There, the embassies are housed in giant villas that belonged to
    the elite who ruled in the era of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The
    American interests section, however, is a heavily guarded compound on
    the Malecón, the stone embankment abutting the strip of road along the
    Caribbean Sea. And unlike the old mansions of Havana’s Miramar district,
    it consists of a seven-story, nondescript office tower. In 2006, in an
    inspired bit of diplomacy that today cynics might refer to as
    “trolling,” the Bush administration erected a Times Square-style ticker
    visible across 25 windows on the top floor and displaying blunt,
    pro-democracy messages in bright red letters. Its components smuggled
    into Cuba via diplomatic pouch, the makeshift display flashed quotes
    ranging from the anodyne (“Democracy in Cuba”) to the mildly provocative
    (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream that one day this nation will
    rise up”).

    This obviously annoyed the regime, and in response, it erected 138 poles
    topped with black flags to obstruct the ticker’s visibility (Castro also
    ordered the parking lot of the interests section be dug up). The poles
    were installed at the end of the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, a
    plaza directly outside the interests section consisting of a stage and
    large concrete slabs on which are painted the ubiquitous revolutionary
    buzzphrases “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) and “Venceremos”
    (“We Shall Overcome”). Fifteen years ago, in the midst of the Elián
    González affair, the Cuban government erected a statue of Martí — a
    leader of the movement seeking Cuba’s independence from Spain —
    clutching a small child (meant to be González) while pointing his finger
    accusatorily at the American building. Over the years, whenever the
    Cuban regime has wanted to gin up anger at the United States, it has
    bused tens of thousands of supporters to the Anti-Imperialist Platform,
    where they can spit venom at the building Fidel has called a “nest of
    spies.”

    In 2009, several months after Obama assumed office, the State Department
    removed the ticker, deeming it confrontational. It was a sign of things
    to come. Today, the heavily fortified interests section and the vast
    plaza outside are no longer the sites of dueling slogans, the respective
    physical representations of American democratic freedoms and Cuban
    Communist obfuscations. The administration’s decision to abandon its
    predecessor’s robust, if piquant, provocation can be seen as a metaphor
    for the broader policy changes it has implemented over the past four
    months, deserting the island’s democrats in pursuit of a no-conditions
    deal with their oppressors. While the rest of the world — with a few
    noble exceptions, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, ex-Communist
    countries that reversed their pro-Castro policies almost immediately
    after the Cold War transitions and began providing vigorous support to
    the dissidents — has accepted the regime and resigned itself to its
    perpetuation, America long stood as the most outspoken supporter of
    democracy in Cuba.

    Changes to another edifice also signal something ominous about politics
    on the island. On my first day in Havana, I walked past El Capitolio,
    the pre-revolutionary parliament modeled on the U.S. Capitol. Early in
    his rule, Castro found that he didn’t have much use for the building
    (“true democracy” would be expressed through voting by a show of hands
    in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución), and so it was converted into the
    Cuban Academy of Sciences. El Capitolio is set to reopen later this
    year, once again serving as a legislative body, housing the
    rubber-stamp, single-party National Assembly. Walking past, I noticed
    that the building’s exterior granite walls were halfway through a
    resurfacing, an overhaul well timed for the huge number of American
    tourists expected to descend upon the island over the coming year. When
    it’s finished, the regime will have put a gleaming new façade on its
    artificial house of representatives.

    — Mr. Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a
    correspondent for theDaily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet.

    Source: The Castros’ New Friend – Misceláneas de Cuba –
    http://www.miscelaneasdecuba.net/web/Article/Index/55550c3e3a682e0d04535fab#.VVXkoPmqqko

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