“My experience is sort of atypical,” Cuban American John Suarez told Opportunity Lives. Suarez’s parents left Cuba and he was born and raised in the United States. In 1994, he was working as a youth coordinator in Iowa and ran into a pro-Castro activist who was “trying to paint Cuba as some kind of Utopia.”
“It sort of horrified me, got me activated,” Suarez said.
After that encounter, Suarez dedicated himself to Cuban human rights issues. “I want to help the Cuban people free themselves from the dictatorship,” he said.
He does not take the task lightly. Suarez is now the International Secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate and his battle for Cuba’s freedom over the past 20 years has been mostly uphill, especially under the past president.
“It has been challenging,” he said. “In the Clinton years, the Cuban dictatorship participated in an act of state terrorism but still joined in joint military exercises.”
Suarez pointed out the Clintons have continued a policy of legitimizing the Cuban regime even after leaving office. In 2015, former President Clinton invited Raul Castro to visit him.
“What has been going on has extended the life of the dictatorship,” Suarez said. “Since Clinton, we have we have seen increasing repression and violence. In the ’90s it was different, it was possible there could have been a transition. But now with the Obama administration, offering the hand of friendship in 2009 — like the trade of three Cuban spies for American Alan Gross — sent signals to the regimes.”
John Suarez, a second generation Cuban immigrant to the United States, speaks at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy about the abuses of the Castro regime. | Photo: UN Watch
Suarez described the reaction from Cuba when the three spies returned home. “They got a heroes’ welcome when they returned.”
“In response, we saw a crackdown,” said Suarez. He mentioned multiple people who were killed: a woman who fought against the regime to keep schools open, a prisoner of conscience, a potential Nobel Prize nominee — people who were threats to the regime, and people who could possibly oversee a transition of power to a truly democratic government.
Suarez noted that President Obama also removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Even though, “they’ve sent tons of weapons to North Korea and were intercepted in Panama.”
“The U.N. did an investigation and found that sanctions had been violated,” Suarez said. “When the U.S. and Cuba were negotiating [for Alan Gross], it came out that a U.S. hellfire missile had ended up in Cuba. The administration requested its return at the time. But in 2016, after the Wall Street Journal broke the story, only then was the missile returned.”
These are just a few of the major red flags among Cuba’s human rights abuses. So why do Democratic politicians and activist continue to push a positive view of Cuba’s government?
“Left wing communist nostalgia, sympathy to that ideological view” is Suarez’s response.
That status quo is not a happy one for most Cubans. Suarez described daily life in Cuba with one statistic: more than 100,000 people have fled the country since December 2014, and those numbers continue to increase.
“Shortages, increased repression, and fear — fear if you ever speak out,” he said. “Human rights attorneys have had their offices raided. There have been over 9,000 arbitrary detentions, which is a high water mark in 10 years, increasing under Obama. Violence against activists. Not to mention the shortages and power outages. And if you are in Havana, you have to walk down the middle of the street because the masonry is so old and worn down there is a serious risk that part of the building could fall and injure you.”
“If you are in Havana, you have to walk down the middle of the street because the masonry is so old and worn down there is a serious risk that part of the building could fall and injure you.”
Suarez can only guess at what President-elect Donald Trump’s Cuban policy might look like.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I think Trump had a message throughout the campaign that was lukewarm. He said that Obama didn’t make a good deal with Cuba and then in September he came out decisively against it. I think that was a smart decision. He was only getting 33 percent of the Cuban American vote. A lot were still skeptical, but another big block thought, even if he wasn’t go to do something, [a vote for Trump] gave them an opportunity to reject the Obama Administration’s policy and misrepresentation of Cuban sentiment.”
Suarez argued that while Obama and other Democrats have continued to claim that Cuban Americans are in favor of his policies towards Cuba, the 2016 election results show otherwise.
“He claimed they were in favor in the policy but the majority used their vote to show their rejection of policy. In Miami-Dade county with a high density of Cuban Americans, Marco Rubio, even harsher on Cuba, got 69 percent of the vote and outperformed Trump statewide. And Cuban Americans who voted for Hillary — they were explicit about rejecting the Cuban policy.”
Cuba came back into the international press in November after the death of dictator Fidel Castro. “The death of Fidel Castro is a mixed bag,” said Suarez. “On the positive side this was a dangerous individual who twice advocated the USSR launch a nuclear first strike on the United States. The first time was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the second time was in the early 1980s. Fidel Castro normalized international terrorism through the Tricontinental meetings he organized in Cuba gathering terrorists from around the world providing them with training and resources. He has done much harm and was very dangerous. Although in recent years his health had declined reducing him, apparently, into a symbolic figure.”
“On the negative side,” continued Suarez. “Fidel Castro died without having to answer for his crimes in a court of law. Finally and most tragically Fidel Castro is gone but the diabolical communist totalitarian dictatorship he started churns on destroying lives in Cuba and in other countries such as Venezuela. Raul Castro is equally as murderous as his brother and he is grooming his 51 year old son — a colonel in Cuba’s secret police — to take over in a generational succession.”
On the future of Cuba, Suarez was cautious.
“I wish I could be more optimistic,” he said. But “the last administration has delayed the freedom of the people for another 20 years. It won’t be easy to find political substitutes for a transition of power.”
“I think it goes beyond human rights, to national security and economic benefits,” Suarez added. “And I can say that in the past, the IYDU and pro-freedom agenda conservatives were able to build coalitions that forced the hand of the regime and freed political prisoners. The way to change Cuba is by not being silent, but by sharing the stories of those who have experienced the true horrors of the regime.”
You can read more from Suarez on Twitter and on his blog dedicated to Cuban issues.
Katrina Jorgensen is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter .