Christopher Walsh, Senior Program Manager of the Bush Institute Human Freedom and Women's Initiatives, argues that America must continue to stand with Cuban dissidents who have sacrificed personal freedom in the pursuit of liberty for their country.
Normando Hernandez’s good humor belies the horrors he endured as a political prisoner in Cuba.
For criticizing the government, he was arrested by the Castro regime in March 2003 with more than 70 other dissidents. The journalist was imprisoned for seven years in a space he described as “so small that I could stretch my hands and touch the walls of my cell,” with the “toilet hole 10 inches away from the bed.”
Cuban dissidents like Hernandez have sacrificed personal freedom in the pursuit of liberty for their country. That list includes Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Oscar Biscet and other dissidents like Rosa Maria Paya, and Berta Soler. America must continue to stand with them against tyrants. Doing so preserves the liberal democratic order that has generated nearly a century of peace and prosperity.
There are ways Washington, and all Americans, support people in authoritarian countries like Cuba. They showcase the stories of individual activists. Empower freedom movements through rhetoric and policy. Impose penalties on authoritarian leaders for abuses, while also explaining the benefits of U.S. democracy support. This work is essential to freedom.
On July 11, protests erupted across Cuba over economic woes and government repression. Cuban leaders attempted to obscure this truth by blaming the United States. Perhaps they’re right. No, not by means of malignly meddling in another country’s affairs (on which America’s record has blemishes), but as part of a tradition of supporting liberal democracy and empowering people to have a voice in their government.
That proud U.S. tradition provides freedom activists opportunities to elevate their cause through congressional testimonies, high-level meetings, awards, and media.
Second, it projects strong rhetorical support for democratic values and the people who desire them. It also couples words with action through funding for programs and organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute that strengthen free societies.
Third, it uses tools like the Global Magnitsky Act, as the Biden Administration recently did, to personally sanction authoritarian leaders for human rights abuses. Finally, it makes clear distinctions between American democracy support that empowers people worldwide and authoritarian efforts (such as disinformation, cyberattacks, and election interference) to destabilize adversaries.
As protests continued across the island, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel condemned American “interference” for changing how some Cubans think. Another Communist Party official said, “It involves tactics of so-called nonviolent struggle that generate instability and chaos in countries, to provoke the security forces into acts of repression.”
Of course, such obfuscation is nothing new to Cuba, given the regime’s record on political rights and civil liberties. The one-party state stifles individual freedoms, independent media, political opposition, due process, and competitive elections. So, it’s unsurprising when the regime feels compelled to scapegoat the United States over the protests.
Hernandez explains this approach saying, “The Cuban regime has always looked for an external enemy to blame for its inefficiency. Historically, the Cuban regime has presented to the people of the island and to the entire world the United States as the enemy who wants to snatch ‘the conquests of the revolution’ and against whom we must fight regardless of the consequences.”
Elsewhere, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have used “foreign interference” and “sovereignty” to justify a draconian national security law for Hong Kong. It has effectively quashed the country’s democracy movement by stripping the city’s remaining autonomy and Hong Kongers of their freedoms.
No one should be fooled by the Orwellian spin. When citizens of authoritarian countries crave individual rights and accountable government, it’s empowering to have influential countries like the United States elevate their struggle. Advocating for those people and supporting their human dignity is neither interference, nor a violation of any country’s sovereignty.
Authoritarian governments also try to undermine U.S. assistance by highlighting American failings when it comes to democracy. True, the United States makes mistakes at home and abroad. They omit, however, how liberal democratic ideals – like the rule of law, robust civil society, free press, and representative institutions that separate power – provide the best infrastructure to peacefully wrestle with shortcomings, while also protecting majority and minority rights.
Moreover, the pursuit of these ideals is how societies aspire to be better, freer, and more just.
Today, Hernandez lives in Miami, where he advocates for Cuba’s liberty. He stresses the importance of America’s engagement in this struggle, saying, “The United States, as the leader of democracy and freedom in the world, is the one who can help the Cuban people the most.”
American leadership matters in making the world better. It must challenge the lies of authoritarian leaders by humbly making the case for democracy. It must support freedom movements and democratic ideals with decisive confidence. Cubans like Hernandez, and so many others pursuing liberty, deserve to know that the United States stands with them.