The History of Protest Behind Obama’s Historic Visit to Cuba
Yesterday the Obamas touched down in Cuba with big smiles and umbrellas in hand, marking a trip that’s as historic as it is controversial. The Communist island has spent more than five decades under strict trade embargoes put in place by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and hasn’t had a visit from a sitting U.S. President in nearly nine decades. President Obama changed all of that this weekend as part of an ongoing push to reconnect with the island nation after announcing his plan to re-establish diplomatic ties in December 2014. Amidst all of the trade deals and photo ops between the nations’ leaders, there’s a troubling undercurrent of revolt that was punctuated by mass protests and arrests hours before the Obamas stepped foot in the country.
The unrest among Cubans isn’t new. Rather, it’s part of a decades-long struggle to gain freedom from the Communist regime of Fidel Castro that began in 1959. In the decades since his rise to power, freedom of expression disappeared and thousands became political prisoners for speaking out against Castro. Since Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl a decade ago, relations between protesters and the communist regime have remained tense. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported over 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015. In the first two months of 2016, there were more than 2,500 arrests. The presidential trip has done nothing to stem the flow of arrests either.
In the hours before his arrival, Cuban police forces clashed with protesters from an activist group and arrested more than 50 people marching through the street. The protest group, called The Ladies in White, are made up of former political prisoners and have been marching along the same route, from their church to the streets, since 2003. Led by one of the founding members Berta Soler, the group has demanded democracy, an end to human rights violations, free elections, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and more.
“For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” Soler explained before her arrest. “We are here being repressed simply for exercising our right to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.”
While Obama’s trip will include a meeting with some of the nation’s protesters, the White House has stressed that this trip will not be about making democratic demands. He’ll be encouraging the reforms that have already begun to happen, particularly in the realm of economic liberalization. “The main message of his speech will be that Cuba’s future is for the Cuban people to decide. The goal is not to foster regime change,” a state department official said. There’s no guarantee that reform will happen, but as embargoes are lifted and trade deals between the nations reignite, all eyes will be on how Obama approaches the troubling human rights abuses happening throughout the island nation.
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Images via AP Photo, Reuters, and The Washington Post.