"Working together for a free Cuba"




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 years.

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 Indiana.

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 state"?

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 husbands.

Claudia Márquez Linares is vice president of the Manuel Márquez Sterling Society, a journalists' group. This article was translated by the Times from Spanish.

Source: www.futurodecuba.org