By Roger F. Noriega
Feb. 23, 2017
The Cuban government recently denied a visa request by the Secretary-General of Organization of American States Luis Almagro, blocking his planned trip to the island to receive an award from a Cuban human rights group. Over two years into President Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba, the decision to block Almagro’s visit highlights Cuba’s continued refusal to meet or advance toward the hemisphere’s basic standards for human rights and political freedoms.
In a letter to Rosa Maria Payá, chair of Cuba Decide and the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy and daughter of slain dissident Oswaldo Payá, Almagro wrote, “please be informed of my inability to attend because my visa application for the official OAS passport was denied by the Cuban Consulate in Washington, while I was also denied the possibility of entry with a Uruguayan document, which does not require a visa.” Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and a former Chilean minister of education were also invited to attend the awards ceremony but revealed that they too were denied visas.
According to Almagro, Cuban embassy officials responded to the visa request in “astonishment” that he would travel to Cuba to accept the human rights group’s award, and called the planned visit “an unacceptable provocation.”
The award was meant to honor the Secretary-General’s laudable record of work in support of democracy and human rights. Almagro has been a stalwart and unbiased champion for human rights throughout Latin America, highlighting the threats and violence faced by environmental activists in Honduras, bringing regional attention to the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, and advocating for basic rights for the Cuban people.
Almagro responded to objections of Cuban officials saying, “it would be quite ridiculous if, after 67 years of revolution, both the well-being of the Cuban people and bilateral relations with the United States depended on this ceremony.” He added that, “my presence and the ceremony of February 22 are no different from other similar events that take place in other countries of the region and in which I have participated.”
Some commentators in the United States and elsewhere feared that Almagro’s visit would endanger Obama’s opening to Cuba. However, the attempted visit and the Cuban government’s response have simply helped to remove the façade of progress that has shielded the Cuban dictatorship since normalization. The façade has also protected regional leaders who are loath to put any pressure on the Cuban government to adhere to basic human rights standards.
The truth is that politically-motivated arrests on the island have surged since President Obama’s normalization, and no substantive progress has been made on human rights or political freedoms. Meanwhile, activists like Rosa Maria Payá continue to live under constant harassment, spying, and threats from the Cuban government.
The decision to block the travel of the OAS Secretary-General should not be overlooked by regional leaders when considering the future of Cuba’s involvement with the OAS and the possibility of its attendance at the 2018 Summit of the Americas. Cuba’s rebuke of Almagro should also be taken into account as the Trump administration reviews current U.S.-Cuba policy.