U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that we live in a “moment of reckoning for democracy worldwide” and promises that America will “step forward and bring others” with it. Those are fine words, but for many Cubans they ring hollow. For all its talk of opposing autocracy and supporting imperiled democracies, the Biden administration has done little to address the suppression of democracy’s stirrings in Cuba.
Cuban dissidents are suffering the worst persecution in decades. Yet the Biden administration, the international community at large, and the media have largely ignored this repression.
Last summer, on July 11, 2021 (11J), Cubans took to the streets to protest peacefully the government’s tyrannical practices and chronic economic mismanagement of the country. The regime of Miguel Diaz-Canel has treated this simple and peaceful act of democratic expression like a serpent to be crushed in its shell. He has authorized mass trials for hundreds of innocent protesters, including an estimated 55 minors. Some of the indicted will end up in prison for decades. According to Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, “The Cuban government has sentenced 128 people to a total of over 1,900 years in prison for demonstrating and expressing their views.”
This repressive crackdown is broader and harsher than previous ones, as it aims to scare ordinary Cubans away from supporting any such protests in the future. Far from moving past the cruelty of the Castro brothers, Mr. Diaz-Canel is returning to it. Yet how many Americans are even familiar with Mr. Diaz-Canel’s name? The complacent assumption of the press and the international community is that he is a more benign figure than his predecessors. The brutal facts on the ground in Cuba tell a different story.
If democracy is to have any chance in Cuba, the Biden administration will need to do more than just pull the travel visas of a handful of Cuban officials, and the press and international community will need to shine a relentless light on Mr. Diaz-Canel’s misdeeds.
One positive step the Biden administration could take is to support the expansion of internet access in Cuba. Mr. Diaz-Canel has restricted it in response to the peaceful protests. This is preventing the free flow of information, without which the recovery of democracy in Cuba is impossible.
Will President Biden speak as harshly about Mr. Diaz-Canel as he does about Russian President Vladimir Putin? The Marxist tyranny on Mr. Biden’s doorstep is far worse than anything in Mr. Putin’s sphere of influence. Why is the fate of Cubans of less concern to Mr. Biden than that of Ukrainians? Why is Mr. Biden not calling on the United Nations and the international community to boycott and sanction Mr. Diaz-Canel as severely as Mr. Putin?
All of this is made even more urgent by the fact that Cuba is in a dangerous alliance with Mr. Putin. The Putin regime has already revealed its willingness to install nuclear rockets in Cuba — plans the Cuban dictatorship has not denied.
The Biden administration is aware of this problem. Referring to the possibility of Russia installing these weapons in Cuba and Venezuela, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said at a press conference at the White House on Jan. 13, 2022, that “If Russia were to move in that direction, we would deal with them decisively.”
Months earlier, in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed the administration’s concern about the growing role of Russia in Cuba and Venezuela. (The general of the Southern Command, Laura Richardson, attributes the instability of the Western Hemisphere in part to the interference of Cuba in Venezuela, which has contributed to a wave of transnational crime in Latin America.)
“When it comes to Cuba, the goal is democracy and freedom for its people,” Mr. Blinken has said. But where are the effective measures to promote these democratic changes?
Earlier this year, Florida legislators introduced a bill calling on Mr. Biden to enact Article 54 of the U.N. Charter. The bill is still pending. It says that Article 54, if enacted, would allow the U.N. Security Council to take action against Mr. Diaz-Canel, who presides over an autocracy that “is using torture, violence and intimidation, and withholding food, water, medicine, electricity, education and communication to the outside world in order to strangle the population into submission.”
Mr. Biden should heed the words of this bill. Why hasn’t he? Why has an administration ostensibly dedicated to the global rebirth of democracy offered such tepid support to Cuba’s disciples of it? Cuba is a test of Mr. Biden’s sincerity. Will he stand with its persecuted people or ignore the abuses of their tormentors?
This is no time for “normalization,” as some counsel Mr. Biden, but rather a moment that cries out for a robust defense of the Cuban people’s democratic rights. Nine years ago, I helped establish the Emilia Project to defend those rights. The project’s purpose is as important today as it was then. We cried out for “a legal order of our homeland has as its basis the democratic principles that prevail in other nations of the civilized world.” But our plea remains unheard. As the mass trials against peaceful Cubans of 11J vividly illustrate, Cuba is still an appalling communist tyranny.
I commend Mr. Biden for holding a “summit on democracy,” as he did in the first year of his presidency. But what good is the lofty rhetoric at that summit if it is not met by action? This is, indeed, a moment of reckoning for democracy worldwide, as Mr. Blinken says. But history will judge Mr. Biden to have failed if he continues to overlook the crushing of democracy’s revival in Cuba.
• Dr. Oscar Biscet is a physician and human-rights advocate.