- - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

With the Cuban government under increasing pressure last week to explain the suspicious death of a prominent dissident, Raul Castro did what any cornered dictator would do: He tried to change the subject. He grabbed his dog whistle and sent the media hordes scampering off in a new direction by announcing he is willing to sit down for talks with the United States.

It’s not that he hasn’t said it before, but he knows what buttons to push when the time is right. A story that places the United States on the defensive is just too irresistible for the international media, and they reacted predictably, pushing aside the more important story of whether the regime murdered Oswaldo Paya, winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his effort to organize a plebiscite on Cuba’s lack of freedoms.

Paya died along with a dissident colleague on July 22 in what the Castro regime called a “one-car accident,” after their car flew off the road and collided with a tree. Aboard also were two Europeans, who sent messages to friends and colleagues immediately after the accident that they were being followed and that their car had been rammed by a truck. Given Cuban state security’s well-established tactic for ramming dissident vehicles when they are traveling with foreigners, their version of events is entirely believable, but neither has been allowed to meet with the press so far.

Of course, Raul Castro wants to talk about something else, trotting out the Castro regime’s old hobbyhorse that it is ready for negotiations on what purportedly divides our two countries. Speaking at Cuba’s annual July 26 commemoration — symbolically the start of the Cuban Revolution — Mr. Castro said, “Any day [the Americans] want it, we will sit with them at a negotiating table equal to equal.” The wire services were off and running.

But “equal to equal” is regime-speak for the position that if the United States wants to criticize human rights violations in Cuba, then Cuba deserves a forum to criticize what it contends are human rights violations in the United States. If the U.S. has problems with Cuba’s Communist Party dictatorship, then Cuba should be able to state its objections to our political system. It also means Cuba has a right to demand compensation for the five-decade-long U.S. economic embargo of the island, meaning billions of dollars from the U.S. taxpayer. This would be the starting point for any negotiations.

In other words, any such engagement would be a pointless exercise meant only to serve as a propaganda vehicle for the decrepit Castro regime to garner some sense of legitimacy — not to mention rally its international supporters — to further discourage the Cuban peoples’ aspirations for change.

To its credit, the Obama administration rejected the latest Castro overture. “Our message is very clear to the Castro government: They need to begin to allow for the political freedom of expression that the Cuban people demand and we are prepared to discuss with them how this can be furthered,” a spokesman said. “They are the ones ultimately responsible for taking those actions, and today we have not seen them.”

Indeed, it is nothing short of scandalous to suggest at a time when no quarter is being given to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa that the United States should somehow embark on a woolly process of accommodation with a defiantly undemocratic regime 90 miles from our shores. No serious policymaker would even entertain such a notion.

At the end of the day, however, the issue is not a dispute between Cuba and the United States, as the Castro regime and its international aiders and abettors would like us to believe. The dispute is between an ossified regime incapable of reform and its own people, who deserve better than the crushing poverty and oppression that are the hallmarks of the Castro brothers’ 50-year tyranny. Paya certainly had a different vision for Cuba’s future, and he paid for that audacity with his life.

If Raul Castro was serious about taking Cuba in a new direction, he would begin by implementing new measures designed to truly transfer power from the state to individual Cubans, allowing them — rather than an ideological junta trapped in time — to actually be custodians of their individual destinies. People will know true change is afoot in Cuba — and have a real reason to re-examine U.S.-Cuba policy — when its citizens can act and think freely without fear of reprisal. The Castros believe they can run out the clock on individual freedom. They don’t deserve that opportunity.

Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.