When Cuban officials arrived in Mexico earlier this month, the minister of foreign affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, greeted them with an enthusiastic tweet: “A very warm welcome to President Miguel Díaz-Canel [and his team]. ... Welcome to Mexico!!!”
Here’s the problem with Ebrard’s tweet: Díaz-Canel isn’t a legitimate president. He’s the leader of a brutal dictatorship, and was hand-picked to succeed the country’s former leader, Raúl Castro. There is no democracy in Cuba; free, multiparty elections haven’t been held in the island nation in over 60 years. Instead, the Cuban people have been forced to obey a succession of dictators: Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and now Díaz-Canel.
How is it possible that, in 2019, there are still governments that are reluctant to call Cuba a dictatorship? Despite all the killings, and the political prisoners, and the simple fact that a single political party rules over more than 11 million Cubans?
The latest annual report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights notes the “persistent restrictions” on freedom of assembly and expression in Cuba. It also notes that such restrictions “continue to systematically curtail the human rights of the inhabitants of Cuba, in particular, to the detriment of human rights defenders, social and political leaders and independent journalists, as well as Afro-descendants, women and LGBTI people.”
This is the dictatorship that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he’s known) refuses to criticize.
An interview I conducted with AMLO in 2017, before he became president, may shed some light on his reasons for protecting Cuba’s aging authoritarian regime. At the time, Raúl Castro was still the tyrant in power.
“Can we call Raúl Castro a dictator now?” I asked AMLO.
“I wouldn’t call him that,” he replied.
I said: “Mr. López Obrador, Cuba has been a dictatorship since 1959. [Raúl] was hand-picked by Fidel in 2008. You used to complain about hand-picked leaders in Mexico. Why, then, aren’t you willing to talk about hand-picked leaders in Cuba?”
“Look,” he said, “those are phobias; I think you are wearing your journalist hat. You are entitled to ask these questions. I also have the right not to engage in these issues.”
AMLO said he didn’t want to criticize other countries so that they wouldn’t “mess with us.” But such passivity in the face of human rights violations only emboldens dictators.
The truth is that change will only come to Cuba if it is driven by the Cuban people.
The BBC recently released a documentary podcast about Cuba’s digital revolution, which I highly encourage you to listen to. When it comes to electronic communications, Cuba has lagged far behind its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Yet even though internet access on the island is expensive, connection speeds are slow (only 3G is available) and censorship remains a major concern, young people are finding ways to get hold of the information their government tries to hide.
The Cuban dictatorship is losing its grip on the nation’s social media. And that may be the key to bringing about real change in the country.
Recently, a 1-year-old Cuban girl died after receiving a vaccine, and the news went viral. The resulting outrage forced Díaz-Canel — in a rare acknowledgment of a national crisis by a Cuban leader — to tweet in response: “Painful loss of baby Paloma. Our condolences to the grieving parents. ... Political manipulation by opponents is offensive and hurtful.” Yet if the Cuban state controls everything, then surely it is to blame for Paloma’s death.
Cuba provides the worst example for Mexico, or any other Latin American country, to follow. It’s outrageous that human rights advocates in Mexico have suddenly decided to keep quiet and say not a word about the Havana regime.
But everything changes eventually. Even in a dictatorship like Cuba.
P.S. Regarding the scandalous capture and release of Ovidio Guzmán López — the son of the drug lord known as “El Chapo” — the key phrase came from Mexico’s security minister, Alfonso Durazo, who acknowledged that “the security Cabinet decided to abort the operation.” Why? It sets a terrible precedent. The AMLO administration will spend the rest of his time in office trying to justify this action.