Shaking hands with libertad in Cuba

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama told a crowd in South Florida that his policy towards Cuba would be governed by one word: “Libertad,” Spanish for liberty.

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“The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the right of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair,” Obama said. “That is my commitment. I won’t stand for this injustice; you will not stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba. That will be my commitment as president of the United States of America.”

We’re pretty sure that’s not what President Obama told Cuba’s Dictator-in-Chief Raul Castro when he shook his hand at the funeral service for Nelson Mandela. If he did, it did not have much of an impact. The day after the handshake heard around the world, the Castro boys celebrated Human Rights Day by tossing over 150 Cuban dissidents in jail.

But the war over the handshake is lost. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart mocked those who feel true outrage that the Leader of the Free World would extend warm wishes to a tyrant responsible for the death of over 50,000 of his own countrymen. Like President Johnson losing Cronkite over Vietnam, losing Comedy Central over oppression in Cuba is deadly.

So let’s change the debate. The President wants to shake hands with Cuban leaders, let’s give him a few new ones. If President Obama were to shake these hands, he could live up to his campaign promise and truly change Cuba.

Jorge Louis Garcia Perez “Antúnez” – Arrested and imprisoned at the age of seventeen for openly criticizing the tyranny of the dictatorship, Antúnez spent the next seventeen years of his life in a Castro gulag. In spite of suffering countless beatings and arrests since his 2007 release, Antúnez continues to be an outspoken critic of the regime.


Gorki Águila –  As front man for the Cuban punk-rock band Porno Para Ricardo (Porn for Ricardo), Gorki’s music mercilessly skewers and mocks the Castro dictatorship. He has been arrested and detained for his protest rock numerous times, and the Castro regime has confiscated the band’s musical instruments and gear on various occasions. What the Cuban regime cannot confiscate, however, is Gorki’s determination to fight for his rights.



Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, known by many as the “Nelson Mandela” of Cuba – A medical doctor and devout Catholic, Oscar Elias Biscet had his first run in with the Castro dictatorship when he protested the regime’s policy of using unsafe drugs to induce pregnant women to have abortions. His opposition led to his firing and a prohibition from practicing medicine. Refusing to go away quietly, Dr. Biscet then became a leader in the human rights movement in Cuba. He was arrested during the Black Spring of 2003 (along with 74 other activists) and given a 25-year prison sentence. Finally released from prison in 2011 and placed on parole, Dr. Biscet continues to defy the dictatorship and valiantly advocates for democracy in Cuba.


Sadly, there are some Cuban hands President Obama will not be able to shake because they were murdered by the Castro regime since Obama took office in 2008.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo – Murdered, February 3, 2010 –  After a prolonged hunger strike to protest his inhumane incarceration, this Afro-Cuban was brutally beaten by Cuban State Security agents as they screamed racial epitaphs at him. He was initially refused medical care and died at the age of 33 from the injuries he had sustained.

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Laura Pollán – Murdered, October 14, 2011 – As the wife of political prisoner Hector Maseda – one of the 75 dissidents arrested and given long prison sentences during the Black Spring of 2003 – Laura Pollan was one of the founders of Cuba’s Ladies in White. This group was made up of the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of political prisoners in Cuba. After the group gained worldwide prominence and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005, the Castro dictatorship became more aggressive towards the group. Following a 2011 violent, government-led attack on the Ladies in White, Pollan complained that one of the thugs had pricked her with what felt like a needle. A few days later she was hospitalized with an unexplained illness and mysteriously died a week later.


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And, finally, while the President is in the mood to shake hands, extend one to American Alan Gross, who is currently dying in a Cuban prison for giving cell phones and lap tops to a Cuban synagogue.



Alberto de la Cruz is the Managing Editor of the Babalu Blog, an island on the net without a bearded dictator, and can be followed on Twitter @albertodelacruz.

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