The opening of diplomatic relations hasn’t changed Cuba much, the New York Times’ editorial board notices today in some detail. After Barack Obama announced a new era in Cuban-American relations, one Cuban-American artist decided to test the premise by heading to Havana to organize a demonstration. That effort ended predictably; after the Cuban government demanded a change of venue and the right to invite only those it deemed non-provocative, they either arrested the other participants or kept them from leaving their residences. Tania Bruguera ended up canceling the event, and the Castro brothers managed to demonstrate that nothing’s changed. Bruguera may have trouble leaving Havana now, too:
Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera has been detained by authorities in Havana in advance of a controversial performance, according to statements issued by the artist’s sister who resides in Italy. The piece consisted of installing a podium and an open microphone in Havana’s Revolution Square, allowing any interested individuals the opportunity to speak their minds for exactly one minute.
Deborah Bruguera, who in the past has helped her sister manage her studio, issued a series of statements via her Facebook page stating that various law enforcement officials were seen taking Tania from their mother’s home in Havana on Tuesday morning and that the artist had not been seen or heard from since.
“I’m making an urgent call to the national and international community to pressure the Cuban government to give us information on her location and condition,” she wrote in one post.
Neither news agencies nor the Cuban authorities have confirmed the artist’s arrest. But the arrest of three well-known dissidents in advance of the performance has been reported by various news outlets, including the New York Times, NPR and the Guardian.
Needless to say, the NYT editorial board sees this incident as a danger … to Obama’s policy. Their concern in this case seems limited to how this might give Republicans in Congress “ammunition” to block Obama’s attempts to end the embargo (via Babalú’s Henry Gomez):
Ms. Bruguera’s plan was the first test of whether the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month would prod the Castro regime to be more tolerant of critical voices. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government barred prominent critics, including Ms. Bruguera, from reaching the square. Some were detained and others were reportedly prevented from leaving their homes. In the end, the performance wasn’t held. …
By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy. This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy.
Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.
The entire editorial has to be read to see just how empty-headed this conclusion is. The NYT gives the Castro regime credit for having “wrestled with how to prevent” the demonstration, as if they haven’t had decades of practice in doing exactly that. They emphasize the fact that the authorities warned her not to proceed, and then mentions their offer to Bruguera to hold the event elsewhere and control access to the stage as something approaching a reasonable accommodation. They never mention her own detention, although that may not have been apparent by press time for the print edition.
The editorial gives a matter-of-fact report of the other detentions, but saves its concern not for the wisdom of the shift in policy as Cuba demonstrates that nothing has changed on human rights, but for the fact that Republicans are likely to point it out. Cuba may be cracking down on dissidents again, they conclude, and the real shame is that it will interfere with Obama’s attempt to make history.
I’ve been skeptical about the embargo in the past, and still am. It hasn’t done much in 52 years to push the Castros out of power, and it’s reasonable to look for better options. However, one cannot argue that the embargo is both ineffective and oppressive, especially since nearly every other nation trades with Cuba and the people still live in poverty and oppression. The US should have insisted on actual reforms in the negotiation to open diplomatic relations with Havana, not just a prisoner swap. The very clear conclusion in the deal announced two weeks ago is that Obama is willing to abandon decades of demands on human-rights concerns for a claim on “history,” and apparently so are the New York Times’ editors. At least, they seem a lot more concerned about Obama and his “historical shift” than the ongoing oppression that Obama’s deal did nothing to change, and much more concerned that Republicans might have the temerity to challenge the White House because of it.