Free Trade Won't Free Cuba
By Claudia Márquez Linares
November 6, 2003
HAVANA — According to our state television, the Castro regime was
pleased that the United States Senate passed an amendment easing
restrictions on American citizens traveling to Cuba. This was no
surprise. Just days before the vote, Fidel Castro met here with a group
of American travel agents. Both sides are impatient to make business
deals in tourism on our island. But how much this would really benefit
Cubans outside the top Communist Party leadership remains to be seen.
Democratic dissidents here are divided on the travel ban and the
American trade embargo. But there is unanimity that the Cuban government
does not deserve any sort of reward now, just half a year after it
carried out the worst crackdown on the opposition in decades — the
arrest of 75 dissidents, who were quickly given prison terms of up to 28
Of course, American lawmakers have the right to defend the freedom of
movement for their citizens, and American farmers understandably want to
sell agricultural products to whomever they wish. But the assertion by
lawmakers that they want to lift the obstacles to travel and trade for
the good of average Cubans rings false.
"Unilateral sanctions stop not just the flow of goods, but the flow of
ideas," said Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming, a sponsor of the bill.
"Ideas of freedom and democracy are the keys to positive change in any
nation." The problem is that when it comes to Cuba, the flow of ideas,
not to mention people, is hardly free. Sharing ideas can land you in
jail, and one has to ask the government for a permit to travel abroad —
and if you are a dissident, the chances of getting one are almost zero.
My husband, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, has always been denied travel
because he has headed the Democratic Liberal Party of Cuba.
In addition, freedom to trade with the United States is a privilege
reserved for those who belong to the Communist Party nomenklatura.
Merely selling newspapers in the streets or refilling cigarette lighters
without a permit can get you arrested and fined.
My husband's party's platform calls for freedom of movement and free
markets. For the next 18 years, however, my husband's movement will be
reduced to the two square yards of his cell in the high-security prison
at Guanajay. He was one of the first of the 75 dissidents detained in
March, just weeks after he had met with Senator Kent Conrad of North
Dakota and his family in Havana to talk about the Liberal Party and
about the chances of freedom and democracy in Cuba. The next day my
husband met with staff aides to six other senators, including Mr. Enzi.
Two other Cubans at these meetings were also condemned: Oscar Espinosa
Chepe, an economist, to 20 years and Hector Palacios, founder of the
Democratic Solidarity Party, to 25 years.
Senator Conrad is not the only American politician to have shown an
interest in Cuba. In April, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa came to promote
agricultural products from his state. Senator Max Baucus came in
September with farm leaders from Montana; Senator Evan Bayh came last
month to sign food accords advancing the agricultural interests of
Of course, all these senators voted in favor of easing the travel
restrictions. Could they not see the irony in that meeting with Senator
Conrad and with the Senate staffers were central accusations against
many dissidents, because talking to American officials can be considered
an "act against the security and the territorial integrity of the
I understand that now the Senate amendment (and an identical House
measure passed long before) will probably be sent to President Bush for
his signature. Mr. Bush wants the travel ban to stay, but if he vetoes
the bill he would go against the majority of his own party. I can only
hope that in their deliberations, Mr. Bush, Congressional lawmakers and
the farmers they represent will consider the "freedom of movement" I and
the other wives of Cuban political prisoners will enjoy for years to
come: traveling every three months to spend just two hours with our
Claudia Márquez Linares is vice president of the Manuel Márquez Sterling
Society, a journalists' group. This article was translated by the Times