Opinion: What Jimmy Carter Should Have Said in Cuba

During his visit to Cuba this week, former President Jimmy Carter packed an international media spotlight with his guayabera, affording him an opportunity to refocus the international conversation on Cuba on the efforts of the pro-freedom Resistance to achieve a democratic transition, and the injustices suffered by the people on the island at the hands of the Communist regime.

Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate passed up the chance to stand squarely on the world stage for the Cuban people's democratic aspirations – embodied in the nonviolent action valiantly undertaken by the freedom movement despite the regime's reprisals, including beatings, imprisonment, and torture – and chose to bolster causes important to the dictatorship.

Yes, he met with some members of civil society and the Cuban Resistance. He reportedly expressed hope for the Cuban people to enjoy freedom of speech, assembly, and travel and for the enforcement of international rights standards.

But then Carter called for the release of five convicted members of the regime's “Wasp” spy network serving sentences in US prison. Ringleader Gerardo Hernandez is serving life for charges including contributing to the murders of Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Mario de la Peña, and Pablo Morales in the 1996 shootdown over international waters of civilian aircraft flown by humanitarian group Brothers to the Rescue.

Carter's position was to excuse these heinous crimes.

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As an American son of Cuban exiles, and a supporter of the Cuban Resistance, I wonder what might have been had Carter chosen a more honorable course.

Picture the onetime head of state and government of the United States pausing before that roomful of world media. They wait to ask about American citizen Alan Gross, who worked to give Cuban Jews access to communications technology and was held hostage for over a year before being unjustly sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. His release has been sought by the Obama administration, Jewish groups, and the Cuban-American community, among others. They wait to hear about US economic sanctions, which Carter subsequently claimed impeded the regime from undertaking significant reform.

He neglected to explain, though, exactly how failing to multiply the billions of dollars worth of business dealings already taking place between American companies and the Cuban nomenklatura under current sanctions prevents the regime from releasing all political prisoners, legalizing non-Communist political activity and scheduling free and fair elections -- which are the conditions in US law for lifting those sanctions.

Then imagine him surprising all concerned by saying something like this:

“I met with a number of representatives of Cuban civil society and the pro-democracy movement today. Among them were Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, and pioneering nonviolent freedom activist; Laura Pollan and other members of the Ladies in White who have marched every Sunday for years for the release of political prisoners; Angel Moya Acosta and other former Amnesty International prisoners of conscience; Yoani Sanchez and Claudia Cadelo, award-winning bloggers, and others who overcome great obstacles to free expression. In Dr. Biscet, I see a man whose work deserves to be recognized by the Nobel Committee. As a former Peace Prize recipient, I support his nomination.

Today, I ask why citizens like these are denied a say in their country's future. I ask why they are portrayed on State television as 'Pawns of the Empire' for exercising basic rights and for using the Internet to connect with fellow citizens and friends abroad.

Cuba has been under one-party rule for 52 years. The Cuban people have been told falsely that my country and the American people wish to do them harm. Cubans know this is not the case, and for those who do not, let me assure you my fellow citizens want to see your country flourish, and for you to enjoy the same liberties and opportunities we do.

The Cuban people deserve a government that respects their freedom, chosen through free and fair elections. I urge world leaders to join me in calling for these elections. I pledge my support, and the Carter Center's, to this enterprise which could mark the beginning of a new chapter in Cuban history written by the Cuban people themselves, free from the fear of oppression.”

President Carter could have leveraged the prestige of the office he once occupied, the status enjoyed by his Center, and the international media spotlight he brought with him to Havana to offer Cuba's nonviolent freedom movement a boost that would have registered in the world's newsrooms, among policymakers, and in real world and online forums. But he did not.

Aramis L. Perez is a member of the secretariat of the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of over 50 pro-democracy groups in Cuba and in exile.

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