“Abajo la dictadura!” (Down with the dictatorship!) “Libertad!” (Freedom!) “Tenemos hambre!” (We are hungry!): these were the principal slogans shouted last summer, on 11 July 2021, in more than fifty cities across Cuba. For the first time in thirty years, Cuban people spontaneously took the streets to express their frustrations—not only with ongoing food shortages but with more than sixty years of repression and violations of basic human rights.
The Cuban regime’s reaction was swift and brutal: it systematically detained hundreds of people—among them, children—with no hearings or trials. The regime charged nearly all the protestors with sedition due to disturbing the socialist order. According to the human rights NGO Justicia11J, “[t]he crime of sedition is an eminently political crime against state security” and it entirely “demolishes the discourse that there are no political prisoners in Cuba.”
The deterioration of the Cuban economy (which contracted 11% in 2020 and with and inflation of 70 % at the end of 2021) and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years have exacerbated the shortages not only of food but also of life-saving drugs and medical supplies. This has created ideal conditions for the emergence of popular protests. Despite Cubans’ real frustrations with the regime, last year’s demonstrations were “overwhelmingly peaceful,” according to Human Rights Watch. Nevertheless, earlier this month, trials began for 57 detainees, while hundreds of other detainees—some under the age of 18—remain incarcerated without any legal protections.
In the aftermath of these arbitrary detentions—and the reported ill-treatment of detainees—we spoke with Rosa María Payá Acevedo, one of the leaders of the Cuban opposition and a founder of the international human rights organization, Cuba Decide. Started in 2015, the organization supports changing the economic and political system in Cuba and putting it on a path towards democracy.
The daughter of the late Oswaldo Payá—founder of the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, a recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, and two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize—who was killed by the Cuban regime in 2012, Payá Acevedo is a graduate of the Global Competitive Leadership program at Georgetown University. She was awarded the Morris Abram Human Rights Award by UN Watch in 2019 and received the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen International Leadership Award in 2020 from the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute. She agreed to this exclusive interview with The European Conservative.
Following the protests last July, when over 5,000 Cubans were detained, and recalling the march on 15 November, when nearly 100 people, including opposition leaders, were detained, Cuba appears to be experiencing a dark period of renewed intensity of political repression. Can you help us understand what is happening? Is political repression the new strategy of the island nation’s totalitarian regime?
The only strategy of the Cuban regime is state terrorism. But our people can no longer bear oppression. Last summer, Cuban citizens took to the streets by the thousands in dozens of cities, demanding real change. Raul Castro and his military forces, through their appointed puppet-president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, decided to continue using violence to repress our legitimate claim for democracy and human rights.
The regime pushes for Cubans to emigrate—legally or illegally—to neighbouring nations as a way to reduce social unrest in Cuba and to cause instability across North America and put pressure on the United States. It is using Nicaragua right now to attain this goal—the Cuban dictatorship has a deal with the Ortega regime so that Nicaragua does not require visas for Cubans, and, in this way, Nicaragua has become the entry point to Central America and from there to the United States. At the same time, the Cuban regime shares a blacklist of Cuban dissidents, whom the Ortega regime prohibit from entering Nicaragua, leaving them stranded in the Latin American countries where their flights connected.
The Communist elite understand that the moment they cease repressing, emancipation will naturally follow—and they have opted for the most violent and tragic scenario. As my father Oswaldo Paya once explained in an interview, the slogan ‘Socialism or Death’ is not just a brutal metaphor: it literally means that if Cubans do not submit to socialism, they will disappear (prison, exile, death).
The Communist alliance of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has had a major influence on the radical left in Latin America. The region now seems to be moving in the wrong direction as seen through the victory of Pedro Castillo in Peru and Gabriel Boric in Chile. Polls also show growing support for Gustavo Petro in Colombia. Do you think Cuba is the driving ideological force in Latin America?
The Cuban dictatorship—not Cuba—has used propaganda to depict its totalitarian oppression as a utopian alternative to capitalism. This renders the victims of repression invisible, both on the island and abroad.
Communist ideology and its local variants have shaped the minds of the younger generations in our hemisphere. The myth of Cuban exceptionalism must end; the continued grip of the so-called Communist “revolution” on the imaginations of Cubans depends on the perceived lack of stability in other countries. The reality is that many Latin American nations have paid a high price for tolerating more than six decades of Castroism in Cuba; the Havana regime infiltrates other nations to sow chaos, violence, corruption, radicalization, and hatred, destabilizing its democratic neighbors whenever possible. Cuban military and intelligence agents are involved in criminal and terrorist activities in many areas of the world, including drug trafficking and human trafficking. Those are well-documented facts; they transcend ideology. The Cuban regime is a blight on the region.
So, yes, the Cuban dictatorship has been a driving ideological force in Latin America, and it has been first and foremost a deadly force.
In a recent conference organized by Fundación para la Libertad with Mario Vargas Llosa in Miami, you said that the Cuban regime is living in one of its most vulnerable moments in recent history. What do you mean?
Right now, for the first time in decades, the Cuban people are awake and ready to be the protagonists of our time. The regime survives because of its violent totalitarian nature. It imposes an atmosphere of terror, and there is no counterbalance to its power right now. But as my father used to say, we Cubans no longer accept being dominated by our own fear of the Communist military machinery that has been the Cuban state from the very beginning. The end is near because our hearts have already changed, both on the island and in exile.
The so-called revolution of Fidel and Raúl Castro belongs to the past. Its tyrannical nature has been exposed to the world. On top of that, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have disappeared, and the military group in power in Cuba and its puppet president do not have any legitimacy. Human rights violators in Cuba have managed to delay our transition to democracy for three long and painful decades. But the time to act is now, and the Cuban people are acting. Failure to act on the part of the international community will only make us all accomplices of a tyrannical regime.
While multilateral institutions like the UN play an important role in the monitoring and compliance of human rights violations around the world but, nevertheless, these bodies still are not quite ineffective in preventing or sanctioning and overthrow totalitarian regimes who do not respect such rights. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been permitted to inspect conditions in Cuban prisons since 1989. Given that Cuba is a member state of the UN and a member of the Organization of American States, how can such institutions better address Cuba’s total disregarding of human rights?
What is lacking here is political will. World leaders simply don’t have the will to act on the Cuban regime’s blatant crimes against humanity. For example, delegations from Argentina, Mexico, and other countries prevented the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights from speaking at the Permanent Council of the OAS on the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has not requested an observation mission to Cuban prisons, even though the regime holds more than 800 political prisoners and there are credible reports of torture in Cuban prisons.
A regime where all dissent is criminalized, such as is the case in neo-Castro Cuba, has no right to be part of any international organization. Nevertheless, the Cuban dictatorship has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, continues to send money to the Cuban dictatorship even after the European Parliament approved a resolution demanding the suspension of the agreement between the EU and Cuba because of human rights abuses. The United States has failed to support the Cuban people’s cries for freedom by refusing to denounce the Cuban regime as illegitimate, even though U.S. congressmen from both parties have asked the Biden administration to take action.
How should President Biden approach the Cuban Communist Party? How can he pressure them to work toward democratic change? Do you have any hope in this current administration?
We must see worldwide support for the Cuban people’s call for freedom—especially as freedom in Cuba would lead to greater democratic stability in much of Latin America. The U.S. government, regardless of the political party in power, should help create a coalition of democratic nations to denounce the illegitimacy of the Cuban regime, as well as support the Cuban people’s struggle to regain our sovereignty.
Cubans are already prepared to carry out a true democratic transition. The U.S. should not unilaterally negotiate with the Cuban regime because this will only further the lie that this regime is legitimate and delay the transition that Cuba needs. Instead, the U.S. should demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners on the island; the end of repression; and the respect, in law and in practice, of freedoms of expression, association, public assembly, and economic freedom.
Targeted sanctions are very important—that is, to impose individual political, financial, and diplomatic sanctions on those members of the regime involved in human rights abuses. The Sullivan Principles, for example, are another option. This requires foreign companies to respect human rights and not engage in enriching anti-democratic rulers.
In general, the U.S. could lead a hemispheric call for peace by inviting the EU and OAS members to take these kinds of steps to hold the Cuban regime accountable. The international community should use all available tools to reproach the Cuban regime, including the EU’s Global Human Rights Sanctions and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. Meanwhile, the Cuban regime should continue to be excluded from the Summit of the Americas until it complies with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which would require Cuba to ensure a just representational democratic system.
The current U.S. administration has a unique and very practical opportunity to support Cubans’ call for freedom: by providing full internet access that would cover Cuban territory. This would end the interference and information blocking the Cuban regime uses to keep its people isolated and oppressed.
What is the status of the Cuban opposition? Are there still organizations inspired by conservative and or/classical liberal ideas?
Like in every modern society, once we become a democratic nation, political tendencies will freely flow in Cuba. The Cuban people and the opposition, which is part of that people, are ready to be protagonists of the democratic transition process and eager to be able to work in peace toward prosperity in the island. After decades of indoctrination by the state monopoly of the Communist Party, we Cubans will obviously need some help from the international democratic community in terms of civil education: how to successfully implement the rule of law, separation of powers, electoral representation, etc. Even at the university level, the free market of ideas in Cuba has been reduced to the interests of the centralized state. All media belongs to the government and, as such, censorship is structural.
Now, the Cuban opposition is at a disadvantage. The state’s security apparatus employs hundreds of professionally trained agents to harass and dismantle all citizen initiatives that are independent of the regime. Still, the Cuban people are committed to gaining their fundamental freedoms and individual rights. Currently, the goals of the opposition, dissidents, and civil society are the same as the goals of the common citizen: we have the right to have rights, as my father Oswaldo Paya put it.
Lorenzo Montanari is vice president of the international affairs at the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and executive director of the Property Rights Alliance (PRA), an advocacy and research group affiliated with ATR. Montanari holds a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in international relations, both from the University of Bologna, and an M.A. in political management from George Washington University. He was a National Review Fellow in 2017 and is a member of the Editorial Board of The European Conservative.