Why Doesn't Mr. Obama Have Time for Cuban Dissidents?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

FOR ITS winners, the National Endowment for Democracy's annual Democracy Award can mean a brief respite from a dangerous life as a dissident: a trip to Washington, attention from Congress and the media, and -- during the Bush and Clinton administrations -- an Oval Office meeting or statement of support from the president. No such luck for this year's honorees, who are five leaders of Cuba's pro-democracy movement. Two of them -- Iris Tamara Pérez Aguilera and Jorge Luis García Pérez -- were detained in the Cuban town of Placetas on Tuesday when they joined a peaceful meeting of the Rosa Parks Women's Movement for Civil Rights. A third, Librado Linares García, who is already imprisoned, was moved to a punishment cell before yesterday's Capitol Hill award ceremony.

None were able to travel to Washington. They have been represented here by Bertha Atúnez, sister of Jorge Luis García Pérez. And Ms. Atúnez, an Afro-Cuban who was active in the Rosa Parks movement before she was forced into exile a year ago, has been snubbed by President Obama. Requests that he meet with her went unanswered. Only as the ceremony began did the White House issue a brief statement.

It's not that the president is too busy to concern himself with Latin American politics. The White House arranged for a Spanish journalist to ask a question at Tuesday's news conference; reporter Macarena Vidal pressed Mr. Obama on whether U.S. allies such as Chile and Colombia were doing enough to help with "less democratic countries." The president replied by heaping praise on visiting Chilean President Michele Bachelet, a socialist who has been promoting Cuba's readmission into the Organization of American States and who has gone out of her way to avoid offending Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. "Chile is leading by example," Mr. Obama said, adding that its good relationship with Washington despite political differences "points the way for other countries . . . where the democratic tradition is not as deeply embedded as we'd like it to be."

Message to Mr. Chávez and the Castro brothers: We can work with you. Message to Cuba's democratic opposition: We don't have time for you. "What I'd like is to have an opportunity to express to the president the situation of the island," Ms. Atúnez told us. "For the Cuban people it's enormously significant that Obama can become president" -- particularly, she said, because of his race and relative youth. "The Cuban people are hoping that he won't disappoint them."

Mr. Obama's hastily drafted statement -- issued after The Post inquired about his silence -- said he wished "to acknowledge and commend" the five dissidents "and all the brave men and women who are standing up for the right of the Cuban people to freely determine their country's future." He called for the release of the three now in prison. Will that satisfy Ms. Atúnez and the other opposition leaders? We suspect not. They, like the beleaguered pro-democracy movements of Venezuela and Nicaragua, are hoping that the American president will focus his policy on supporting them. Yet for now, Mr. Obama's diplomacy is clearly centered on their oppressors.

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