Obama admin accused of not supporting Cuban dissidents, pursuing policy of ‘aggressive niceness’ toward communist country

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The United States has long stood for democracy and freedom, but in Cuba, a dissident who opposes Fidel and Raul Castro’s communist regime tells The Daily Caller that he and his compatriots are feeling an icy breeze from the Obama administration. Democracy advocates say the lack of support can be attributed to the Obama administration’s strategy of “aggressive niceness” toward the communist country.

Officially, the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba. Instead of an embassy in the country, the United States maintains an Interests Section (USINTS) in Havana, which is part of the Swiss embassy.  While official U.S. policy is to promote democracy in Cuba through the USINTS, sentiment in the community of Cuban dissidents, both in Cuba and abroad, is that this is no longer happening.

“Now there is disdain, and bad treatment,” said Juan Carlos González Leiva, a lawyer who is a prominent Cuban dissident. “Also there is lots of reluctance, lots of disinterest — no interest in working with the dissidents now. Before, never.”

“I had been working very closely with the Department of Press and Culture of the Interests Section and with the office of human rights. I had a strong friendship with all of the officials who passed through,” he continued. “It is really inconceivable the extents of disdain and humiliation and poor treatment on the part of the officials towards the Cuban dissidents.”

As a result, he says, he no longer goes to the USINTS anymore.

González Leiva told TheDC that the guards outside the USINTS now treat dissidents coming to visit poorly, and in his own case, said that they have kept him waiting a full hour past his appointment time. “They had me there for almost an hour, going through controls and humiliating body checks,” he said.

Another time, when he went to the USINTS to discuss ways in which he could work with U.S. officials to promote shared goals, he said “they said that the only thing they could do were some English classes.” Ultimately, neither the English classes nor another project he suggested, “a cultural gallery” of Cuban art, ever got off the ground. Additionally, the USINTS did not fix his computer as he requested, though that is a service that the USINTS formerly provided.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, and a member of the board of directors of U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, says this is not an isolated incident.

“The feedback that we continue getting from Cuban dissidents on the island is that essentially the United States Interests Section has become hostile,” he said. Dissidents say “they don’t even feel comfortable going there anymore, because they just really feel like they’re not wanted.”

It was not always like this. In 1996, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act, which provided for U.S. government aid to Cuban dissidents. According to the act, “the president is authorized to furnish assistance and provide other support for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba” through distribution of information, “humanitarian assistance,” “support for democratic and human rights groups” and monitoring human rights.

But as Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for Free Cuba, says, “personnel is policy, and the same policy implemented by different people sometimes comes out differently.” Indeed, the interpretation of the USINTS’ role has varied over the years.

From 2002 to 2005, dissidents had a strong ally in Ambassador James Cason, then the lead American official at the USINTS.

“I never got instructions,” Cason told TheDC in a phone interview. “I was just told ‘you know, what you need to do. Let them know what’s going on in the world and let the world know what’s going on in Cuba.’”

So, Cason said, “I took my cues from the dissidents. I said ‘how can I help you? We can’t give you money. That would be counterproductive and besides that’s not what you need.’ They said to me logistic support and information and moral support.”

Cason was very proactive in helping the dissidents and promoting the cause of democracy in Cuba. “The first 3 months, I traveled about 7,000 miles around the island and visited in their homes, and I took them shortwave radios and books and cameras and things — a lot for the independent journalists and the independent libraries,” he said.

Cason instituted journalism training for dissidents in the interest of getting information out of the country. In Cuba, the internet is censored, and there is little access, so to enable the dissidents to have access to information, “we put in 24 internet terminals at the Interests Section where they could use them for two hour blocks, and send whatever they wanted to send out and get whatever information they wanted,” Cason said. “And that was always solidly booked. We taught them also how to use computers and do research.”

Another component of Cason’s efforts was getting the international press to pay attention, in order to make the plight of Cuban dissidents known to the world. “Our actual press did not want to cover what was going on in Cuba,” Cason said. “They said it was not in the news.” So Cason gave them “hooks.” He set up elaborate displays of Christmas lights around the USINTS, with images of Santa Claus and the Statue of Liberty. When the Cuban government arrested 75 dissidents, Cason put the number “75” in the lights, which angered the government so much that they put up a row of flags to block the view.

Cason earned the respect and trust of the dissidents. “James Cason is a very good person, and did very good work,” González Leiva said.

But Cason corroborates the testimony of Claver-Carone and González Leiva of what happened after he left to become ambassador to Paraguay. Now, he said, “people say, ‘well who’s the head of the Interests Section these days?’ So it doesn’t seem as if they at least have the perception that they’re as welcome as they were when I was there.”

Some of this was personnel change, but according to González Leiva, the situation reached a new low under President Obama. “I have a bad opinion of the office of Interests since approximately two years ago, after Obama took office,” he said. Though the situation declined after Cason left the post, González Leiva pinpoints the beginning of President Obama’s term as the moment when the situation went from bad to worse.

Ambassador Cason, Calzon, and Claver-Carone, similarly, all cite a point at the beginning of the Obama administration when aides to Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California visited Cuba. They spoke to the Cuban government about what could be done to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and the Cuban government said that the U.S. should stop the democracy programs.

A process, Cason said, “curiously began several months later, and a lot of the traditional groups…who were providing the support that I had were cut off… Lots of the groups were gagged, were all cut off, were no longer funded.”

The U.S. State Department says it is still committed to promoting democracy in Cuba.

“We’re committed to supporting improved human rights conditions and increased respect for fundamental freedoms in Cuba, including through support for civil society and prisoners of conscience,” said a State Department statement dictated to TheDC. “We consistently express our support of the Cuban people and call on the Cuban government to improve its human rights practices and release all prisoners of conscience.”

But González Leiva, and democracy advocates like Calzon, Cason, and Claver-Carone, have a different impression. Claver-Carone calls the USINTS’s reported unfriendliness toward dissidents an attempt at “appeasement.”

“My impression,” said Cason, “is that if in fact it’s true that it’s a distancing, a coldness towards the traditional opposition, that it’s because it’s a policy position to be nice to the Cubans and remove an irritant.”

Calzon and Cason refer to the policy as “aggressive niceness,” which Cason defines as “if you’re just nice to them, then somehow things will work out, and they’ll come around to our point of view.”

Neither makes a secret of their feelings about such a policy. “You don’t deal with the mafia through ‘aggressive niceness,’” Calzon said. “They have to understand that there’s some steel that they cannot ignore.”