America / Culture / Foreign Policy / Politics

Not for the Faint of Heart: Wading into the Politics of Cuban Exile Florida

The ongoing drama in South Florida surrounding the issuing of a visa to Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban dictator Raul Castro, may not be on the radar of most Americans, but to overlook its political ramifications in this must-win, critical swing state in an election year would be naive at best. The other day, a handful of Florida newspaper outlets chose to ‘call out’ the GOP on its supposed hypocrisy on this issue. ‘Hey, didn’t President Bush’s Administration issue Castro’s daughter a visa a total of three times in 2001 and 2002? Aha! You big bad Republicans are playing politics as usual!’ Actually, no. There is a perfectly reasonable answer as to why there was not, and should not have been, such an outcry in 2002. The reason lies in the markedly different political and human rights situation on the ground in Cuba at the time. This is critical to assess, as the issuing and denying of U.S. visas can be used to either reward or punish governments based on their respect (or lack thereof) for human rights and the rule of law. As previously pointed out in HLN’s most recent press release, this was a measure that returned under the Reagan Administration and has since been employed sporadically.

Undeniably, Cuba is one of the worst violators of individual liberties such as freedom of speech and of the press. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Reporters Without Borders, to name a few, have consistently ranked Cuba at the bottom of the list when it comes to respect for human rights and civil liberties. However, while the absence of respect for human rights has characterized and plagued Cuba ever since Fidel Castro’s takeover of the island in 1959, there have been brief periods where the Cuban government gave the illusion that it was liberalizing in the political or economic realm (more often the latter, though). And it was during one of these perceived ‘openings’ within the civil society realm in which in 2001/2002 the Bush Administration chose to grant Mariela Castro, then a low-level and relatively obscure personality, a visa to travel to the United States. Here is where political context must come into play, as Mariela Castro has since become one of the Cuban regime’s foremost proponents and public relations representatives. Her father now sits at the head of the Cuban government, and she herself is now the director for one of Cuba’s government agencies. She has even labeled Cuban dissidents and rights activists “despicable parasites” for their tireless efforts against her father and uncle’s 53-year long dictatorship.

To be clear, no one here is arguing that Mrs. Castro should not have a voice or right to express herself (even if her comments only serve to bash the U.S. and the Cuban community in exile). This is a human right and protection that we sincerely hope Mrs. Castro internalizes and carries back with her when she returns to Cuba (though as the privileged and coddled daughter of a communist dictator, I somehow doubt this will be the case).  Members of Congress, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Albio Sires, and Senator Menendez, are simply making the point that the issuing of this visa has come at an incredibly terrible time, a time when Cuban dissidents such as the Damas de Blanco group and Guillermo Farinas continue to be harassed and silenced. To make matters worse, the Obama Administration denied a high-level Cuban government defector and former political prisoner asylum in the United States, yet approved Mariela Castro’s request for a visa. Furthermore, in 2012, it is incredibly important and urgent to note that an American citizen, Alan Gross, is currently locked up in a Cuban jail for attempting to provide Cuba’s small Jewish community with internet access. Incensed already? I know I am, and every American should be concerned that one of our own citizens, Mr. Gross, has been condemned and sentenced under an arbitrary, highly politicized legal system whose aim it is to stifle the human spirit and suppress civil liberties at nearly any cost.

Part of what this visa fiasco demonstrates, especially to those who are not familiar with the incredibly emotional Cuba debate in South Florida, is that context must always be taken into account when any administration grants any kind of diplomatic pass or perceived diplomatic pass to anti-liberal or undemocratic personalities. While many are rather quick to point out the ‘hysteria’  and ‘radical’ response to this episode on the part of South Florida’s Cuban exile community, it is first necessary to understand the pain that feeds into the anger of these individuals who have lost their homeland to authoritarian thugs. It is then quite understandable why Cuban-Americans would be upset (to say the least) at Mariela Castro’s relative ease in attaining a platform for herself when Cubans in Cuba have been systematically and categorically denied a voice for decades. It is such an understanding and approach that is needed if one expects to win the respect of Cuban-American voters.  While the issuing of a visa to Mariela Castro might not even garner the slightest attention from the vast majority of Americans, it is nonetheless imperative that we as citizens understand when and why our government chooses to allow particular individuals or deny particular individuals entry into our country. While we should all stand for freedom of speech and the liberal philosophies that have made this great nation a beacon of freedom, we must carefully weigh this against the consequences and consider the timing of our actions and never for a moment send the wrong message to those who risk their lives for the cause of freedom and human rights.

References and Articles of Interest: