CubaBrief: Appeasing Cuba’s Regime Didn’t Work over 42 years and the dangers of underestimating the Castro regime

President  Barack Obama meets Cuban Dictator Raul  Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.  (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama meets Cuban Dictator Raul Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Despite the claims made by some, U.S. – Cuba relations have not been static over the past 62 years. Congressmen Michael McCaul and Mario Diaz-Balart authored an important OpEd in The Wall Street Journal that is a must read on April 2, 2021 titled “Appeasing Cuba’s Regime Didn’t Work: The Biden administration should learn from the failures of the Obama administration“. However the history of failure did not begin with Obama, but stretches back several decades that offer important lessons for policy makers. It also necessitates dispelling some myths.

Batista in the 1950s was not a U.S. backed dictator, but was pressured out by Washington in favor of what they believed would be a return to democracy

Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista meets President Dwight Eisenhower on July 23, 1956

Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista meets President Dwight Eisenhower on July 23, 1956

In a previous CubaBrief explored the negative reaction of the Truman Administration to Fulgencio Batista’s March 10, 1952 coup against the democratically elected government of Carlos Prio. In another the Eisenhower Administration’s engagement with Havana during the Batista regime, from January 20, 1953 through December 31, 1958. President Eisenhower had short informal talks at the US Embassy in Panama with Fulgencio Batista on July 23, 1956, but the images are reminiscent of President Obama meeting with Raul Castro during the Summit of the Americas in April 2015. This was not “backing” the dictatorship, but decreasingly tolerating it, with an arms embargo placed on the Batista government by the Eisenhower Administration in March 1958, and the US Ambassador pressuring the Cuban strongman to leave office in December 1958.

Richard Nixon met with Fidel Castro in April 1959 and sought a detente with Havana in 1974

Richard Nixon met with Fidel Castro in April 1959 and sought a detente with Havana in 1974

Through the first two years of the Castro regime the Eisenhower Administration’s approach to Cuba changed dramatically from quickly recognizing the revolutionary government on January 7, 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon meeting with Fidel Castro for three hours on April 19, 1959 at theVice President’s formal office in the U.S. Capitol. Nixon, following the meeting summarized the conversation and reached the following conclusion:

“My own appraisal of him as a man is somewhat mixed. The one fact we can be sure of is that he has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men. Whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally. He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naive about Communism or under Communist discipline—my guess is the former, and as I have already implied his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met in fifty countries.

Following a series of hostile actions by the Castro regime over two years the Eisenhower Administration severed diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961.

Relations between Cuba and the United States would reach historic lows, never reached again, during the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 when the world came the closest it has come to a nuclear holocaust.

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Poster for the 1966 Tricontinental meeting in Havana, Cuba

The Castro regime organized the first Tricontinental Meeting in Havana in January 1966, gathering guerrillas and terrorists from Africa, Asia, and the Americas to organize a worldwide movement against bourgeois democracies and to advance international communism by whatever means necessary, including international terrorism. Relations between Cuba and the United States remained cool and hostile throughout the rest of the 1960s.

Warming of relations between Washington and Havana did not begin until the tail end of the Nixon Administration, following the start of detente with China and the Soviet Union. Nixon traveled to China in February 1972 and met with Mao Zedong dropping opposition to Beijing’s entry to the United Nations, and in May 1972 Nixon traveled to the Soviet Union and met with Leonid Breshnev and supported a nuclear arms agreement. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for both meetings, and the overall detente.

In 1973 Henry Kissinger assumed the position of Secretary of State while also retaining his position as National Security Advisor in the Nixon Administration, and began to explore the possibility of a detente with Fidel Castro. Nestor T. Carbonell, in his important 2020 book Why Cuba Matters: New Threats in America’s Backyard, describes what happened next.

“Cuba remained a controversial political issue in the United States, so Kissinger guardedly looked for an intermediary to make initial contacts with the Castro regime (as President Kennedy had done with journalist Lisa Howard following the Missile Crisis). The choice this time was Frank Mankiewicz, a freelance journalist and former spokesman for Robert Kennedy who had recently shot a documentary on Cuba for CBS and was returning to Havana to interview Castro…” According to Kissinger, Nixon was not enthusiastic about the emissary, but he went along with a message to Castro along these lines: “America in principle was prepared to improve relations [with Cuba] on the basis of reciprocal measures agreed in confidential discussions … and was willing to show our goodwill by making symbolic first moves.”

Fidel Castro responded to the outreach with Mankiewicz with a box of Cuban cigars for Kissinger and a message expressing interest in “relaxing tensions” – the definition of détente. In the meantime, Watergate led to the early departure of Nixon from the White House on August 9, 1974 and Gerald Ford, his vice president, replacing him. [However, Nixon continued with both positions through November 3, 1975, and as Secretary of State until the end of the Ford Administration on January 20, 1977.]

“A preliminary meeting was held on January 11, 1975, at a cafeteria in New York, by Deputy Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger with two Castro representatives: Ramón Sánchez Parodi, a senior official of the Cuban Communist Party, and Néstor García, first secretary of Cuba’s UN mission. This was followed by a substantive discussion on July 9 at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William Rogers, who covered some of the steps approved by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to relax tensions, phase out the embargo, and normalize relations. […]

“Eager to clinch a deal with Castro, the Ford administration offered several inducements to the Cuban ruler without any quid pro quo. First, the United States voted in favor of the July 29, 1975, OAS resolution, effectively ending the multilateral diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Castro regime. Then on August 19, President Ford eased the US embargo, allowing foreign subsidiaries of US companies to trade with Cuba, dropping foreign aid penalties on countries trading with the island, and permitting ships en route to Cuba to refuel in the United States.”

The hoped for “easing of tensions” did not occur, but instead the Ford Administration ended up with egg on its face.

Castro’s response was to send thousands of Cuban troops to Africa, first to Angola. According to the [Department of State Bulletin Volume 89 – February 1989] On September 23, 1975 “Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared that events in Angola had taken a ‘distressing turn’ and that the United States was ‘most alarmed at the interference of extracontinental powers,’ i.e., the Soviet Union and Cuba.” [ Cubans had been there since at least March 1975]

All pretense that Cuba only had an advisory role was dropped on November 5, 1975, [Department of State Bulletin Volume 89 – February 1989] when thousands of Cuban troops were fighting in Angola; by February 1976, the number had increased to an estimated 14,000.” Cuban involvement in Angola would continue until 1991.

Kissinger was so angered by the Cuban intervention in Angola, and the failure of detente that he entertained the idea of air strikes on Cuba.

Pattern of failure with Havana has been one of providing unilateral concessions to the Castro regime in the hope of normalized relations in return.

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Secretary Kissinger and Presidents Nixon, and Ford sought detente with Fidel Castro

This pattern of opening up to the Castro regime with unilateral concessions, legitimizing it internationally, providing it more resources, followed by negative consequences was established by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon and Ford Administrations and would be repeated with minor deviations by the Carter, Clinton and Obama Administrations over the next four decades.

President James Carter in 1977 warmed up relations with Havana over a four year period that led to the establishment of Interests Sections, in Havana and Washington DC, that operated as embassies in all but name. The detente failed due to another Cuban incursion in Africa, Castro’s troops participating in a genocide in Ethiopia to establish a Marxist regime there, and Fidel Castro personally sending rapists, murderers, and the criminally insane to South Florida during the Mariel exodus in 1980.

However the Castro regime’s behavior during and after the 2016 Obama State visit bears additional scrutiny that reveals the regime’s contempt and racism for the first African American President of the United States.

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President Barack Obama and Cuban dictator Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba March 2016

Prior to President Obama’s March 2016 state visit to Cuba, “police arrested more than 300 dissidents as part of a crackdown on opposition leaders,” reported Human Rights Watch in their 2017 annual report.

The aftermath of the visit did not generate an improvement in relations.

Two days after President Obama’s visit an official newspaper, Tribuna de la Habana, published an article about his visit titled “Negro, are you dumb?

On January 2, 2017, Raúl Castro presided over a military parade in which Cuban soldiers chanted: “Obama! Obama! With what fervor we’d like to confront your clumsiness, give you a cleansing with rebels and mortar, and make you a hat out of bullets to the head.”

Considering that this was in the midst of U.S. diplomats in Havana suffering brain injuries in 2016 -2017 as Congressmen McCaul and Diaz Balart report in their OpEd, that has correctly raised concerns in the Biden Administration, should also lead investigators to take a closer look at the Castro regime.

Cuban healthcare under the Castro regime has deteriorated, and the dictatorship is more concerned about propaganda than the wellbeing of Cubans

The Washington Post on April 5, 2021 published a letter to the editor by the Center for a Free Cuba’s executive director that disputed claims about “Cuba’s powerhouse status” when it concerns healthcare in Cuba. The letter revealed how doctors have been jailed for reporting on epidemics, how the Cuban government has successfully covered them up in the past, and fears that Havana is doing it again now during COVID-19, but there is much more to reveal.
News reports reveal the true nature of the Cuban healthcare system from time to time but the articles seem to disappear down a memory hole, and international organizations that should know better like the World Health Organization (WHO) and its American affiliate the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) aid and abet in the white wash. The Psychiatric Hospital in Havana run by Eduardo Bernabe Ordaz Ducunge for forty years used the tools of psychiatry to torture dissidents and human rights defenders. Despite this history, the PAHO in 1997 awarded Ordaz Ducunge its prize for administration “for his pioneering efforts in establishing rehabilitation programs and in the humanization of hospital care for people suffering from chronic mental illness.”

In 1991 Freedom House and Of Human Rights published The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1991) by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago that reported on the political abuse of psychiatry in Cuba under the Castro regime, but this well documented evidence did not prevent PAHO from awarding the Cuban in charge of that abomination.

Three of 26 patients who died of exposure in 2010 in Cuba

Three of 26 patients who died of exposure in 2010 in Cuba

Thirteen years later in January 2010 pictures smuggled out of the Psychiatric Hospital revealed that patients were dying of exposure to the elements, and had suffered greatly through their time there. Claudia Cadelo, now exiled out of Cuba, wrote in 2010 her reaction to seeing this photos:

When I opened the little folder called “Mazorra” a series of monstrosities hit me in the face and I couldn’t stop looking at the cruel graphic testimony. A friend who is a doctor visited and while he analyzed images I didn’t have the courage to look at, expressions like, “Holy Virgin Mary, Blessed God, What in God’s name is this?” issued from his outraged throat, mixed with obscure pathologies and the names of diseases both treatable and curable. Enormous livers, tubercular lungs, and wormy intestines are the proof, Senora Arlin, of the sacredness of life in Cuba. Meanwhile The Roundtable throws a fit because the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo has unmasked a crumbling public health system, and they try to cover up the disgrace of seeing soldiers dragging and beating a group of women dressed in white with flowers in their hands. I ask myself, Gentlemen Journalists, when will they explain to Cubans the reasons why twenty-six mentally incapacitated people died in inhumane conditions during their confinement in Mazorra?

The dictatorship was forced to acknowledge what had happened thanks to the still unknown whistleblower and courageous independent journalists who made the images public and The New York Times reported on January 15, 2020 that “26 patients at a mental hospital died during a cold snap this week, the government said Friday. A Health Ministry communiqué blamed “prolonged low temperatures that fell to 38 degrees.” This is the institution that Eduardo Bernabe Ordaz Ducunge shaped over 40 years, and that PAHO celebrated with an award.

This episode was quickly forgotten, and the mantra of Cuba’s “great” health care system continued to be repeated in the press. Just as the Castro regime’s cover up of a Zika outbreak in 2017 led to many tourists being infected with the virus and not knowing that they had it when they went back home. Or other outbreaks of dengue in 1997 and cholera in 2012 that we know about because a journalist and a doctor spoke out and went to prison for breaking their silence. Yet, many today continue to believe the data provided by the Castro regime in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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They also fail to listen to the cries of Liset Herrera, a Cuban mother denouncing the death of her 12 year old son Iker, and ignore their existence in order to continue believing the lies of a totalitarian dictatorship. The news publication ADN Cuba published the above photos and a video interview of Liset Herrera, a Cuban mother denouncing the death of Iker, her 12 year old son (pictured above), due to medical negligence on April 28, 2020.

Lies that are now not only causing the deaths of Cubans but possibly of many others around the world during this pandemic. Covid-19 numbers provided by Havana should not be taken at face value, and precautions should be made with travelers entering and exiting Cuba, and other totalitarian regimes that do not have independent public health authorities to report accurately on the pandemic.

The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2021

Appeasing Cuba’s Regime Didn’t Work

The Biden administration should learn from the failures of the Obama administration.

By Michael McCaul and Mario Diaz-Balart

April 2, 2021 5:58 pm ET

Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 12, 2018. Photo: Al DíAz/Zuma Press

Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 12, 2018. Photo: Al DíAz/Zuma Press

For more than 60 years, a dictatorship has imposed a violently oppressive system on the Cuban people. Its human-rights abuses grew worse under the appeasement policy of the Obama-Biden administration. Amid the “thaw” in relations, documented political detentions rose to 9,940 in 2016 from 8,616 in 2015. The Castro regime lined its pockets and expanded its machinery of repression.

The malignancy has spread beyond the island. After revamping the Venezuelan military and intelligence services, Cuba led efforts to sustain the illegitimate Nicolás Maduro regime and supported its abuses, which mirrored those carried out against the Cuban people. The 2020 State Department report on Venezuela highlights torture, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings—abuses that “amounted to crimes against humanity,” U.N.-appointed investigators found.

The Cuban dictatorship also worked with Hezbollah, a terrorist proxy of Iran, to prop up the Maduro regime. In Cuba, terrorists find a haven. The regime refused Colombia’s extradition requests following a 2019 bombing that killed 22. The Cuban regime reportedly also harbors American fugitives such as terrorist cop-killer Joanne Chesimard, hijacker-murderer Ishmail Muslim Ali and terrorist bomb-maker William Morales. Inexplicably, the Obama administration delisted Cuba as a state sponsor of terror in 2015. This January, the Trump administration corrected that error.

Let’s not forget that the attacks in 2016 and 2017 against U.S. diplomats in Havana remain unsolved. Many U.S. personnel and their families suffered debilitating brain injuries.

The Cuban regime alone bears responsibility for U.S. sanctions. Under the 1996 Libertad Act, sanctions will end if the U.S. president certifies that a genuine democratic transition in Cuba is under way. The basic conditions include the release of all political prisoners; legalization of independent media, political parties and trade organizations; and free, fair multiparty elections. Until then, the U.S. must demonstrate solidarity with the Cuban people, which includes tough sanctions on their oppressors. We urge President Biden to uphold the sanctions imposed by the Libertad Act, legislation he voted for years ago, rather than resume the policy of appeasement.

Messrs. McCaul and Diaz-Balart, both Republicans, represent Texas’ 10th and Florida’s 25th congressional districts, respectively.

The Washington Post, April 5, 2021

Letters to the Editor

Opinion: Cuba’s powerhouse status comes through repression

April 5, 2021 at 4:35 p.m. EDT

Patient receives Sputnik V vaccine dose against Covid-19 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Friday. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

Patient receives Sputnik V vaccine dose against Covid-19 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Friday. (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

The March 31 news article “Cuba could become a vaccine powerhouse” pointed out that Havana wants to soften its image as a “broadly authoritarian country” that has done “some pretty bad things.” Cuban doctors and journalists who raised the alarm in prior outbreaks on the island were locked up and punished.

Desi Mendoza Rivero was arrested on June 25, 1997, for warning about a dengue epidemic in Cuba. On Nov. 24, 1997, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “enemy propaganda.” Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his freedom. Dr. Rivero’s claims were eventually confirmed, and he was forcibly exiled.

On Sept. 2, 2016, the Associated Press reported that Cuba had “remarkable success in containing Zika virus.” On Jan. 8, 2019, New Scientist reported the whole story when the facts became known: “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017.”

Repression patterns during this pandemic in Cuba indicate officials seek to downplay covid-19’s severity on the island. According to Duane Gubler at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, “Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious,” and that is pretty bad.

John Suarez, Falls Church

The writer is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.