Trump, Rodiles and the Cuban Opposition / Juan Orlando Perez

Antonio Rodiles speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on December 14, 2016, by McClatchy DC

Juan Orlando Pérez, 1 February 2017, (re-published in Ivan Garcia’s blog on 7 February 2017) — Antonio Rodiles, one of the Cuban government’s most tireless enemies, or at least one of its most eloquent, has said that the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House is “good news for Cuba.”

It is difficult to criticize Rodiles, who every day faces the danger of State Security agents, or his own neighbors, breaking his nose — they have already done this once with exquisite precision — or of being accused of some monstrosity such as contempt of court, assault, incitement to violence or failure to attend Fidel Castro’s funeral, resulting in him being cast into a windowless dungeon without light or justice.

Every Sunday, Rodiles leaves his house Havana to protest against a government that he considers illegitimate. While not comparable to the battles of Peralejo or Las Guásimas, much less the crossing of the Trocha de Mariel to Majana, this action is one that does require more political and personal courage than all the deputies of the National Assembly together could muster to change a single comma in a decree from Raul Castro’s government, should they even notice a comma misplaced.

Unlike other leaders of the Cuban opposition and most deputies of the National Assembly, Rodiles knows how to speak correctly, in proper Spanish. Perhaps that is why foreign journalists prefer to talk to him rather than to others whom they can barely understand. But what he told the Spanish newspaper El País is dangerous nonsense.

In no way can Trump be “good news” for Cuba when he is so bad for all the other countries of the world, including those whose leaders — Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Benjamin Netanyahu — selfishly hope to benefit from the ascent of a thug to the presidency of the United States. At least Rodiles does not contend Trump is not a thug.

Rodiles declined to say if Trump’s victory was also good news for the United States. “I don’t want to get into that,” he said flatly. “It’s not my problem.”

Perhaps Rodiles thinks that if personnel at the American Embassy in Havana or at the State Department in Washington hear him criticizing Trump’s character, skills or intentions, even if the criticism is so mild it might almost be considered a kind remark, he will no longer be invited to the embassy or to conferences, congresses and seminars — one takes place every month in Miami, Madrid or Washington — where the participants ardently debate the future of Cuba, condemn Castro’s wickedness and lament Barack Obama’s faintheartedness.

Rodiles’ discretion — his refusal to express an opinion about the domestic issues of another country — is admirable, especially because it stands in contrast to foreign politicians who talk about issues in his own. In late December, Rodiles participated in a panel organized by the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington along with two former George W. Bush administration officials: the former under-secretaries of state Roger Noriega and Otto Reich. As reported by Diario de Cuba, he took the opportunity to explain that “the new Administration has the opportunity to reorient US policy towards the human rights and freedom for the Cuban people.”

Noriega and Reich are co-authors of the infamous Helms-Burton Act of 1996. More than a law, it is the list of relentless conditions that the United States would impose on the Cuban government if it were to capitulate, which one can easily imagine these two former officials recommending to the Trump Administration provided someone in the White House still remembers who they are and asks them what to do about Cuba.

Noriega and Reich may express any opinion about Cuba, or about Jupiter, if they so choose. That is their right. No one in Washington is going to end up with a nose out of joint if they do so.

But it is not clear why Rodiles should not in turn be able to say with more or less the same degree of tact what so many other political leaders around the world have said: that Donald Trump’s brand of vicious, racist and ignorant populism is a very serious threat to international security, to the rights of other nations, to Americans’ civil liberties and, of course, to Cuba.

Perhaps Rodiles thinks Trump is as innocuous as Tian Tian, the giant panda at Washington’s National Zoo. If so, he might as well say so. For the moment, Rodiles has refrained from criticizing Trump, though not from criticizing Obama. He believes, as he told El País, that Obama’s legacy in Cuba can be described in two words: indifference and fantasy.

In a video released by the Forum for Human Rights and Freedoms, Rodiles appears next to others celebrating Trump’s victory on November 8 and criticizing Obama’s Cuban strategy.

“It was very frustrating,” explains Rodiles in the video, “to see how the Obama administration was allowing the regime to gain advantage, to gain political advantage, to gain economic advantage, while leaving the Cuban people and their demands on the sidelines.”

He added, “Unfortunately, the legacy of President Obama on Cuba is not positive… His policy has been counterproductive. His policy has led the regime to feel much more secure and to behave more violently.”

It is not clear, however, what exactly Rodiles and his colleagues at the Forum hope Trump will do. “It seems to me that the new administration under President Donald Trump will give much more attention to the Cuban opposition. It will give much more attention to the subject of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the Cuban people will be able to express themselves more openly, though the regime will, of course, do everything possible to prevent that.”

It is likely that on May 20 — if the world lasts until then — a committee of Cuban opposition figures, including perhaps Rodiles himself, will visit the White House, as always happened before Obama, after which the president of the United States might write a Twitter message in jovial Spanglish condemning Raúl Castro and his minions.

But it is unclear how tweets by the lunatic that Americans have chosen as their commander-in-chief are going to get Cubans out onto the streets. Nor is it easy to imagine the Cuban government agreeing to sit down with Rodiles or any other opposition figure just because the president of the United States demands it, even if he makes it a condition of maintaining diplomatic relations; or of continuing to allow Cuban-Americans to send money to their families on the island; or of allowing them visit their relatives whenever they want.

If the members of the Forum for Human Rights and Freedoms believe that these are conditions that the Trump Administration should impose, they should say so clearly and run the risk that Trump or one of his underlings might hear and pay attention to them. An even greater risk is that Cubans might hear them.

It is perfectly legitimate for some members of the Cuban opposition to disapprove of Obama’s policy of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, at least to the degree that it is possible to normalize something that will never be normal. No one should be surprised that those who would like to see the immediate overthrow of Raúl Castro have no confidence in a plan that acknowledges the unlikelihood that the Cuban government will be overthrown in a domestic revolt.

Raúl has been accepted — with indifference or resignation — as the legitimate president of Cuba by almost all the nations of the world. The plan addresses the political and intellectual weakness of opposition groups, counting instead on the slow but inexorable growth of a new post-Castro civil society that will one day reclaim political and economic rights that Raúl or his successors will never be willing to grant.

It is true this plan pays no particular importance to the Forum for Human Rights and Freedoms, or to other groups with equally florid names, whose members feel they have been abruptly and unceremoniously abandoned by their old patron. But not all opposition groups have judged Obama’s decisions regarding Cuba as negatively as Rodiles and his cohorts.

With bitter pragmatism, others have warned that it is foolish to oppose head-on a policy that is viewed favorably on both sides of the Florida Straits. While it has, of course, benefited the Cuban government, it has also benefitted millions of plain and simple ordinary men and women. If nothing else, it means that, after two short years, Raúl can no longer blame his problems on an enemy ever ready to wipe Cuba off the map in a single, brutal blow.

There was nothing fanciful about Obama’s strategy, though there is in the illusion that the Cuban government would have agreed to sit down with Rodiles and other opposition leaders if Obama had insisted on it. And he will do so if Trump makes that demand with his characteristic coarseness. After so many years and so many body blows, Rodiles still has not met Raúl Castro.

Before falling in line with Trump and conspiring with the most reactionary elements of the new administration — its more conservative faction, in particular, wants to break off the truce between the United States and Cuba — the Cuban opposition should take a few weeks to consider whether it would be wiser to avoid allying itself with those who have come to power with a program that not only causes a great deal of alarm within the international community but which should also disgust any person of integrity, whether one’s integrity be of the right-wing or left-wing kind.

The Cuban opposition would do well to maintain a relative independence from the United States, a benevolent gift from Obama, and if they are so inclined, to keep their distance from an administration which, in two short weeks, has led its country to the brink of a pernicious political and perhaps constitutional crisis.

That is unless one sees nothing particularly reprehensible in what Trump says and does, or believe that his vandalism is justified because he got ten thousand votes more in Michigan and fifteen thousand more votes in Wisconsin than Hillary Clinton. It would be very bad news if opportunism led a segment of the Cuban population, even a very small one, to become pro-Trump out of foolhardiness, ignorance, a misguided sense of self-preservation or, even worse, by a genuine ideological affinity with a government that resembles a social democratic Nixon, Reagan or Bush administration.

But even more troubling is the Cuban opposition’s hope that the United States, Barack Obama or Donald Trump and not the island’s plain and simple ordinary men and women might grant them the right to discuss Cuba’s future with Raúl Castro or whatever petty tyrant happens to come after. Trump will just disappoint them. And should he fall, which is likely to happen, he will drag with him all those who have not taken great care or had the decency to maintain a safe distance.

Juan Orlando Pérez

Published in El Estornudo on February 1, 2017 under the title “Bad News.”