The world has been transfixed recently by the struggles of people living under atrophied dictatorships, who, empowered by new forms of communication, have risen up and collectively said “no mas” — or the Arabic equivalent. Individuals such as Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google marketing executive who galvanized the Egyptian opposition on Facebook and spent a couple of weeks in prison for his efforts, have been lionized on American newscasts.
So what happens when, amid all this, one of the world’s most atrophied military dictatorships sentences an American to 15 years in prison for handing out communications equipment to religious groups so that they might connect to the outside world? Should we expect outrage? A cable-news drumbeat on behalf of the imprisoned American? Might Anderson Cooper himself lead the rescue operation?
Not quite. U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross has indeed been convicted by a kangaroo court for providing satellite phones to Jewish groups — a “crime” that in the legal parlance of totalitarian regimes translates into “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.” But Gross hasn’t much ruffled the Anderson Coopers of the world because the atrophied military dictatorship is not in the Middle East, but closer to home, in Cuba.
Now, Cuba is no Egypt. Cuba’s disdain for basic human rights and democratic norms is far more startling a departure from the prevailing conditions in its part of the world. And Cuba is far more shut off from the outside world than Egypt is. There can be no heroic Google employees or Twitteratis or Facebookers in Havana precisely because the communist regime has been so successful at keeping Cuba sealed off from the outside world and the 21st century. The “Arab Spring” may yet inspire Cubans to demand more freedoms, but the fact that they are not on the grid in any meaningful way makes that less likely.
It’s appalling, meanwhile, how the Castro brothers, who have ruled the island for more than half a century, continue to get a pass for their behavior, as if they have a license to preside over a tropical gulag in perpetuity.
It would be difficult to overstate the isolation of Cubans trapped on that island. The spread of democracy throughout Latin America has been one of the more auspicious global developments of the past 30 years, yet even the region’s most principled democratic leaders — former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva comes to mind — embrace the Castros and are willing to exempt them from regional democratic norms enshrined in a series of treaties.
The American left is no friend of the Cuban people either, so eager are liberals to atone (or to make Cubans pay) for our government’s past imperial overreach in the region. It’s one thing to cheer attempts to bypass totalitarian regimes’ “master switch” in the Middle East, but it is decidedly declasse in enlightened circles in this country to dwell on the lack of freedoms in Cuba.
Nor is the American right a friend to Cubans; the Cuban American exile community in Florida has long been the Havana regime’s co-conspirator in keeping their brethren on the island trapped in the past. The U.S. embargo on Cuba is a stark departure from the American belief that more, rather than less, commercial and cultural engagement is key to loosening totalitarian regimes’ grip on power. Our trade embargo and travel ban empower the Castros by helping the regime keep the island hermetically sealed and provide the regime a permanent license to deprive people of their liberties: Claiming that they are besieged by “el imperio” gives the Castro brothers the perfect alibi at home and throughout Latin America.
Former president Jimmy Carter traveled to Havana last week on a goodwill mission that many mistakenly believed would culminate in Gross’s release. He referred to Fidel Castro, now retired but still looking over his generalissimo brother’s shoulder, as an “old friend,” echoing the widely held view of Fidel as a charmingly roguish uncle who can’t bring himself to abandon his adolescent enthusiasms (which include depriving Cubans of essential freedoms).
Carter suggested that releasing Gross would be one of several measures that could improve relations between Cuba and the United States. But that is not what the Castros want, and they must want it even less given what is happening in the Middle East. Why would they crack open the door to the connectivity that inspires a networked identity among people, encourages free speech and accelerates demands for generational change? Havana has no need for the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and keeping the 61-year-old Gross in prison guarantees that Barack Obama cannot loosen the embargo anytime soon. In a sense, Carter was counseling parties with no interest in reconciling.
Against this backdrop, it is easy to second-guess the wisdom or effectiveness of official U.S.-sponsored efforts to strengthen civil society groups in Cuba and introduce the rudimentary equipment needed to get them on the global grid. But we should cheer Gross’s larger cause, as we did Wael Ghonim’s cause, because they are one and the same.
The writer directs the Bernard Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.