Kerry Should Welcome Cuban Dissidents to the Embassy

Tourists take pictures of Cuban flags in front of the U.S embassy in Havana, July 27. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba on August 14 to formally re-designate the U.S. Interests Section as the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Secretary of State Kerry will visit Cuba soon—on August 14.

Since the opening of diplomatic relations and of the Cuban embassy in Washington, what's been going on in Cuba?

More repression. There were 630 political arrests in June, according to the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights.

Jorge Ramirez Calderon, one of the political prisoners released as part of President Obama's rapprochement with the Castro regime, was notified this week that he is facing a four-year sentence for "public disorder." His crime was joining a demonstration for human rights in March.

So, while Kerry was celebrating the opening of Castro's embassy in Washington, the Cuban regime was cracking down harder on the Cuban people.

This raises two important questions about that Kerry visit to Cuba. What will he say while in Cuba about human rights, and with whom will he meet?

As to the speeches, these are critical. Will he call for freeing all political prisoners, for freedom of speech and press? Will he say the Cuban people must govern themselves through free, multi-party elections? Or will he be silent about the brutal repression Cubans face every day?

And will he meet with Cuban dissidents, or only with regime officials? The flag will be raised at the U.S. Embassy on September 14, and the Cuban foreign minister will be there.

Will the Ladies in White, whose peaceful protests have for years kept the cause of freedom alive, be invited? Ironically, because so many leading Cuban dissidents are barred from leaving the island, they will be there and could come to the embassy. What a wonderful show of American support for freedom it would be for them to be invited.

What's the worst thing that could happen? That the foreign minister or all Cuban officials would avoid the ceremony? That would be just fine, because our embassy in Cuba should above all reach out to the Cuban people, not the regime.

Let it be clear that we view the regime as a relic of the past; let the regime's officials choose not to come if they cannot be in the same hall or on the same lawn as those who peacefully struggle for freedom in Cuba.

Is this impossible? Not at all; Secretary of State Shultz did something like this in Moscow in 1987. Here's the New York Times account:

Sixty Soviet Jews who have been denied their most passionate dream, emigration, joined Monday night to celebrate a festival recalling the liberation centuries ago from a hostile land. For the Passover meal, they had ritual matzoh to eat, kosher wine to drink–and George Shultz as their guest.

The secretary of state, in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity with Soviet Jews, joined the "refuseniks" in an emotional observance of the Passover ceremony, known as a seder. Between day-and-night arms-control talks, Shultz used the break to demand that the Kremlin honor human rights.

After spending several moments with each of the Soviet Jews at the seder, Shultz said: "You are on our minds. You are in our hearts. We think about you, we pray for you, we are with you."

Think of the impact if Kerry were to meet with dissidents in Havana and say to them what his great predecessor said to dissidents in Moscow in 1987: "You are on our minds. You are in our hearts. We think about you, we pray for you, we are with you." And that was in the capital of a superpower, not that of a tiny and bankrupt Cuba.

The ball is in Kerry's court. Will he live up to the Shultz record and model, or cave to Castro regime pressure to stay away from dissidents and from the subject of human rights?

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.