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The Voices that Latin American Leaders Did Not Hear in Havana

February 13, 2014 5 minute Read by By Normando Hernandez and Elizabeth Hoffman

At the end of January, heads of state converged in Havana, Cuba for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit.  The expressed purpose of the meeting was to address the persistent problems of poverty and inequality in the region.  Bolivian President Evo Morales stated that “from this summit will emerge more social policies for the liberation of our peoples.”  Ironically, many of the most vocal Cuban activists on these issues were detained in the days leading up to the meeting.

*Guillermo Farinas, a psychologist and leading activist in the struggle for freedom of expression in Cuba, was placed under house arrest to prevent him from attending an opposition forum on the sidelines of the summit.  Farinas, for the record, has endured 24 hunger strikes while protesting the abuses of the Castro regime.  

*Pro-democracy leader Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was detained briefly by state security and is under continued surveillance.  This kind of treatment is not new for him, unfortunately. The Castro regime has imprisoned Dr. Biscet twice for his human rights activities.  When President George W. Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dr. Biscet in absentia, he said, “For speaking the truth, Dr. Biscet has endured repeated harassment, beatings, and detentions.”

*Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, a leading economist, was the only woman detained in the Black Spring of 2003 when Cuban authorities rounded up and imprisoned 75 individuals for their opposition to the regime.  Since her release from prison in 2004, she has continued her activism.  In recent weeks, she has been harassed and beaten by authorities.  She is 70 years old.

These are the people that are on the front lines of Cuba’s battle for freedom.  These are the people that have the courage to speak out against the regime’s many injustices. Yet these are not the people that Latin leaders heard.

The Cuban regime continues to limit the fundamental freedoms of citizens.  True, the government recently relaxed the policy that prohibited Cuban citizens from exiting the country without first obtaining permission. Still, the regime continues to prevent the most vocal of its opponents, such as Dr. Biscet and Ms. Cabello, from travelling abroad.  Other changes aimed at creating a facade of openness have faltered, as well.   In December, the Castro regime said that citizens could purchase foreign cars without a permit. However, the government still retains its exclusive monopoly on prices, and the cost of even used cars is far out of the reach of average Cubans. 

The same is true for access to information, which is crucial to the modern economy.  The Castro regime has made it close to impossible for anyone but the elite to have access to the free flow of information.  Freedom House, the global rights watchdog, reports that getting on the Internet at an international hotel, which offers higher speed and is less censored, costs between $6 and $12 per hour. That’s clearly not affordable for the majority of Cubans whose average monthly salary is $16.    As a result, average Cubans must visit government-controlled computer centers, which still cost patrons $4.50 per hour of access. There, they are only able to access an “intranet” that is heavily censored and monitored by the regime.  Other forms of traditional media, such as newspapers, TV and radio, also remain tightly controlled by the government, leaving average Cubans in a virtual “information desert.”

If the Castro regime is serious about addressing the problems of poverty and inequality on the island, its leaders should secure the individual rights that encourage creativity, entrepreneurialism and prosperity. That means starting with giving a voice to those that are affected most by the lack of freedom.  Not by silencing them.


Image courtesy of the European Council