Kerry in Cuba: More Interested in Cigars Than Dissidents

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stops to buy a humidor from a local vendor during his visit to the Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana, Cuba, August 14. Kerry declared a new era in relations as he celebrated restored diplomatic ties in Havana on Friday, but he also urged political change in Cuba, telling Cubans they should be free to choose their own leaders. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Secretary of State Kerry traveled to Havana to raise the flag at the U.S. Embassy there last week. As has been noted here in this blog and in many news articles and columns, no dissidents or human rights activists were invited to the ceremony.

It's fair to ask if that sends any kind of signal to the regime. The fear would be that it expresses a lack of interest in, or at least a refusal to give much priority to, how the Castro regime treats those struggling peacefully for democracy and human rights in Cuba.

How might we judge the answer? Here's how:

Less than 48 hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shunned Cuban dissidents from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, over 200 dissidents have been arrested.

In Havana, 60 members of The Ladies in White, the renowned pro-democracy group composed of the wives, mothers and daughters of Cuban political prisoners, were arrested — along with nearly 20 other activists. Among those arrested were Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White; Antonio Rodiles, of Estado de Sats; and Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez" of the National Resistance Front.

Some of The Ladies in White, such as Yaqueline Boni, were brutally beaten in custody. Others severely beaten include Ciro Alexis Casanova, Jose Diaz Silva and Mario Alberto Hernandez.

Those facts come from a report by Capitol Hill Cubans, found here. The only real defense of Kerry might be that the regime arrests and beats people all the time anyway, so it's impossible to say this would not have happened even if some of these people had been invited to the flag-raising at the new U.S. Embassy.

Some defense. Experience with communist and other dictatorships has long been that American support for and interaction with dissidents helps them and protects them. Naming them individually does as well, in their common view.

In his 1975 Nobel lecture, accepting the Peace Prize, Andrei Sakharov ended his speech by naming–one by one–about one hundred political prisoners. His wife Elena Bonner, who actually read that speech for Sakharov because he was forbidden from leaving the Soviet Union, later said "the listing of names brought joy to the prisoners of conscience, and to their relatives. More important, it somewhat protected them from the camp administration."

So Kerry missed his chance, and his actions in Havana arguably worsened the situation of dissidents there by suggesting a lack of interest in them and their plight.

There were many things he could have done while there, ranging from the daring and heroic to the marginally useful. He did say, during the ceremony, that "We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders," and those words like the entire ceremony were broadcast in Cuba.

He did meet with human rights activists at a separate reception, as well. Then he did a walking tour of Old Havana, and "After Kerry visited a shop in a boutique hotel, an aide was seen carrying out bags of what appeared to be three bottles of rum, cigar boxes and a humidor."

Bottom line: Mr. Kerry did the minimum he could really get away with. Think what the impact might have been had he insisted that at least some of the human rights and democracy activists must be present at the official ceremony, or had he in his remarks specifically mentioned the Ladies in White or some of the political prisoners.

The reaction of the Castro regime to the Kerry visit is clearly visible already—in those arrests. He had an opportunity to do the minimum he needed to do on human rights in Cuba, or to do something bold and historic and memorable. He made the wrong choice.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where this article first appeared.