‘The Totalitarian Regime Is Intact’: One Cuban’s Message to Obama

The U.S. is pressing ahead with its opening to Cuba. What does that mean for democracy on the island?

Rosa Maria Paya buries her father, Oswaldo Paya, in Havana in 2012. (Reuters)

Earlier this month, Ben Rhodes, the architect of Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, characterized the full restoration of U.S.-Cuban relations—in other words, Congress lifting the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo against the island—as inevitable and imminent. It would be the next domino to fall after the first U.S. presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years, the first authorization of commercial flights from America to Cuba in five decades, the first sales of Cuban coffee to the U.S. market, and so on.

“The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen,” Rhodes said. “Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”

As the Obama administration seeks to cement one of its principal foreign-policy achievements, it’s worth pausing to unpack that complex word: “desire.” Rhodes is right that the majority of Americans and Cubans support re-establishing ties between the two nations. Yet most Americans and Cubans don’t think re-established ties will bring more democracy to Cuba’s one-party state. In one 2015 poll, just over 50 percent of Cubans said they were dissatisfied with the country’s political system and wanted more political parties than the Castros’ Communist Party. But roughly the same percentage didn’t think their country’s new relationship with the United States would change the Cuban political system (Cubans were more likely to anticipate change in their widely despised economic system). They desire normal relations with America. But many also desire democracy. And they don’t expect the former to lead to the latter.

For Rosa Maria Paya, such an outcome is patently unacceptable. Paya is the daughter of Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban democracy activist who in 2012 was killed in a mysterious car crash that official accounts labeled an accident, but that Paya’s family, and the driver of the car, have condemned as a brazen assassination by the Castro regime. Paya is 27 years old, a recent college graduate who studied physics like her father and relocated from Havana to Miami after his death; she’s part of a generation of Cubans that is especially supportive of democracy, the United States, and emigration from Cuba. And Paya is an activist in her own right, continuing her father’s campaign for a national plebiscite on whether to overhaul Cuba’s political system.

Paya cannot be counted among the “overwhelming” number of Cubans who, according to Rhodes, are enthusiastic about Obama’s Cuba policy. She is not as quick as Rhodes to downplay the “political realities” in her country. At the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, she offered sobering and, at times, searing commentary on what the Obama administration’s outreach to Cuba has produced—and, critically, what it hasn’t.

Paya said she’s in favor of countries engaging with and investing in Cuba, but argued that media coverage of the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, and the ways both governments have sold the rapprochement, have created the false perception that a political transition is underway on the island. That perception is in part the result of Cuban elites cynically exploiting the free market and the symbols of the free world, she said: “I’m talking about Mick Jagger in Havana, or Chanel [fashion shows], or a Fast & Furious [film shoot] taking place on the Malecon.”

“The totalitarian regime is still intact,” she told me. “Fundamental human rights that have been violated for 55 years are still being violated, and the life of the common Cuban hasn’t changed at all.”

Yes, more Americans can now travel to Cuba and more Cubans can now travel to America, Paya conceded, but the Cuban government still bars its critics from leaving the country by denying them passports. Recent visits by Obama, Pope Francis, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, she added, have granted legitimacy to a government “that is not legitimate … that is not normal even if you normalize relations with it,” that relies on violent suppression and dynastic succession to maintain power, and that deprives its citizens of freedoms of expression, association, internet access, and multiparty elections.

She applauded Obama for emphasizing, during his March trip to the island, the right of Cubans to determine their own future. And she doesn’t believe it’s the U.S. government’s role to transform Cuba. What she wants from the United States is more coherence between its rhetoric and its actions on democracy and human rights: “Ask for Cubans the same things that you [would] ask for yourselves, and don’t allow for Cubans something that you would never allow for yourselves.”

Paya recalled Obama’s offers to extend a hand to America’s foes, including Cuba, and then cited a saying of her father’s: “If you are going to extend a helping hand to the Cuban people, you should first ask for the Cuban people to have their hands untied.”

I countered that for nearly 60 years, the U.S. government had largely followed her father’s advice, with little to show for it. Cubans’ hands remained tied, despite all of Washington’s asking and demanding and coercing. The Obama administration appeared to be rejecting that logic, prioritizing dialogue over democracy and betting that a hand extended might ultimately be more beneficial to the Cuban people than a hand withheld. A number of international-relations theorists believe engaging enemies is more productive than isolating them, I noted.

Paya bristled at my mention of theory. “We Cubans shouldn’t be the objects of any theoretical experiment,” she responded. “We are human beings. … Conversation [between countries] itself is not enough.” What matters is what’s being discussed. Ten years after the U.S. and China established full diplomatic relations, she pointed out, the Chinese government committed the Tiananmen Square massacre with impunity: “I’m a physicist. I know what [proof] you need to demonstrate a theorem. And we don’t have that. We cannot say that the process that has been started [between the U.S. and Cuba] is a process that is going to end in democracy.”

“What doesn’t need to be proved is that if people can decide [their future], you don’t have a totalitarian regime,” she added.

“Cubans are not less than Americans,” Paya insisted. “Why do we have to sit down and wait for a king to die? No. We can have rights today. There’s not a single reason to deny human rights to a whole population.”

I asked how that denial manifested itself in her daily life in Cuba. “You cannot choose how to live your life,” she said. “You cannot choose the work you’re going to have after university. You cannot choose the school you’re going to attend. You cannot choose your leaders. You cannot decide to move not even out of the country, [but] inside the country because you could be called—and this is a good one—an ‘illegal’ in your own country. National deportations [from Havana to other parts of the country] are taking place in Cuba.” And if you join civil society or oppose the government and political system, “then you could face prison, you could face isolation, you are definitely going to suffer the persecution of the state security [forces]. And if you succeed [in your campaign for political reform], like my father, then you could face death.”

Paya is now lobbying both Cubans and international actors to exert pressure on the Castro regime to hold a nationwide referendum on the Cuban political system. Such a vote, in her mind, could result in a constituent assembly that drafts a new constitution and a transitional government that organizes free and fair elections. U.S. officials, she reasons, should be talking to their Cuban counterparts not just about coffee sales and commercial flights, but also democratic reforms, like the plebiscite, that are advocated by Cubans.

But it’s far easier to talk coffee than constitutions. After all, the Cuban Constitution enshrines the country’s socialist system as “irrevocable.” And, as Paya herself admits, authoritarians don’t “commit suicide.”

This reporting was made possible in part with the support of the Human Rights Foundation.