Advancing human rights in Cuba

The Pope might start with embracing Cuba’s true heroes

In the 1980s when Lech Walesa boldly stood up to his oppressive Communist government in Poland, he was embraced by Pope John Paul II, the news media and opponents of communism everywhere. Mr. Walesa was named Time Man of the Year in 1981 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 as he went about building the movement that began in Poland and ended up leading to the downfall of the entire Soviet Communist system in Eastern Europe.

Nelson Mandela became the face of the opposition to apartheid as he suffered decades in prison in South Africa. He went on to win the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and end his nation’s evil, inhumane, racist system.

Aung San Suu Kyi is somewhat less known by the general American public, but her heroic efforts against the brutal military regime in Burma have also been praised and she has been embraced by the west. Suu Kyi, who has spent approximately 15 years under house arrest, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. Her mission to free the Burmese people continues.

In Cuba, the Castro regime – which has tortured, imprisoned and killed thousands of dissidents in its 56 year reign – is now being embraced by many leaders in the west who seem willing to ignore the Cuban heroes struggling to bring freedom to the island nation off our shores. And the regime shows no sign of loosening up since President Obama reopened our embassy there and announced his intention to normalize relations withHavana; in July alone, it was reported that nearly 700 dissidents were arrested by the Castro regime.

The most likely outcome of a Cuba regime opened to U.S. business, investment and tourism is a repeat of what has happened in China and Vietnam. There is greater economic prosperity due to business investments in these two “communist” countries but the regimes have used this prosperity to tighten their grip on power and continued to crush freedom and dissent. In each case and now in Cuba we are told that a normalization of relations and trade will change everything, but thus far that hasn’t happened. 

There are Cubans today speaking out and working to bring freedom and real democracy to their country. They deserve our support. They include :

Berta Soler, an Afro-Cuban, the leader of the “Ladies in White,” the heroic Cuban women – many of whom are mothers, wives, and daughters who have family in prison for speaking out against the Castro regime – who peacefully protest and are often beaten and arrested. Their protests have continued for 21 straight Sundays.

Antonio Rodiles. a Cuban intellectual dissident who has started a movement called “Estado de Sats” – designed to encourage debates on social and political issues which are often posted on YouTube.

Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as “Antunez,” an Afro-Cuban who fellow dissidents refer to as Cuba’s Nelson Mandela. Mr. Antunez has spent 17 years in Castro’s prisons – from 1990 to 2007. Pope John Paul II called for his release during his visit to Cuba in 1998. Mr. Antunez continues to boldly speak out against the regime today.

Dr. Oscar Biscet – a medical doctor – is another of Cuba’s heroes. He has been imprisoned and tortured numerous times for speaking out for human rights in Cuba and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 from President George W. Bush. “Oscar’s Cuba,” an inspirational documentary on Dr. Biscet’s struggle can be seen on YouTube.

The courage and determination of these Cuban patriots continues. Ms. Soler, Mr. Rodiles and Mr. Antunez have formed the Forum for Rights and Freedoms which has called for the release of political prisoners, adoption of internationally recognized human rights, and free elections.

When Pope Francis visits Cuba later this month the world will be watching. The media will be focusing on his interactions with Raul Castro, but the Pope should speak out boldly against the continued abuses of the Castro regime and embrace the Ladies in White and other voices of freedom. He should embrace Ms. Soler, Mr. Rodiles, Mr. Antunez and Dr. Biscet and demand to meet with them. He should do what his predecessors did in recognizing those who have fought for freedom for their people.

He should publicly and unashamedly embrace the Forum for Rights and Freedoms in Cuba as Pope John Paul embraced Mr. Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland.

Few in the early ’80s dreamed that Solidarity would succeed or that the Soviet empire would crumble or that Mr. Walesa and Mr. Mandela would ever rise to the presidencies of their countries, but all this happened because leaders like John Paul II stood with them. By embracing Ms. Soler, Mr. Rodiles, Mr. Antunez and Dr. Biscet, Pope Francis could help put in motion a similar course of events in Cuba.

* George Phillips served as an aide to Rep. Chris Smith New Jersey Republican, working on human rights issues.

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