The red-white-and-blue flag of Cuba now flies before a reopened embassy in Washington, D.C.—a powerful emblem of the new bond between the United States and its longtime rival.
As our chilly relationship with Cuba starts to thaw, it’s important to remember the true nature of Havana’s totalitarian regime. Sen. Ted Cruz—the Texas Republican and presidential candidate—has proposed an excellent way to do this. He has introduced legislation to rename the address of the Cuban embassy from 2630 16th St. NW to 2630 Oswaldo Paya Way.
This is a splendid idea. Congress should approve it as soon as possible—and then follow up with an even bolder step.
So who’s Oswaldo Paya? He was a hero of democratic freedom and human rights in Cuba—and a prominent foe of Fidel and Raul Castro, the island nation’s dictators. Three years ago, Paya died in a suspicious car crash. As Cruz’s resolution points out, Paya’s death is “widely believed to have been carried out by the Castro regime.”
Renaming the Cuban embassy’s street would follow a worthy precedent. In 1984, during the Cold War, the United States rechristened the street in front of the Soviet Union’s embassy for Andrei Sakharov, a well-known dissident. As it happens, the European Parliament awarded Paya the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002.
The mere existence of Oswaldo Paya Way would send a compelling message. It would remind Americans who drive by in their cars or pass by on foot that Cuba’s government remains opposed to basic civil liberties. And it would force Cuban diplomats, when they gaze outside their embassy windows, to think about the true nature of their masters.
Ultimately, of course, renaming streets is merely an exercise in the politics of gesture. And that’s why we should go one step further—with an action that possesses not just symbolic importance, but also the possibility of transformation.
We need to trade with Cuba openly, the way we do with other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America and around the world.
If it makes sense to rename a street in honor of Paya’s memory, in the hope that it will influence the hearts and minds of Cuban diplomats, then perhaps it also makes sense to put American goods in front of Cuban customers. This will provide a small economic boost to our exporters, and especially to farmers who grow much of the food that Cubans would like to purchase. Even better, though, it will help ordinary Cubans appreciate the mighty potential of political liberty and free markets—blessings that we may take for granted in the United States, but which Cubans do not enjoy under their current rulers.
We don’t know what Paya would have thought of President Obama’s overtures to Havana. It’s very possible that he would have opposed them, just like Sen. Cruz, who condemns “the administration’s long, slow capitulation to oppressive dictatorships.”
My view is that we’ve tried to isolate Cuba for more than half a century, but without any positive effect. Ever since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959—back when Dwight Eisenhower lived in the White House, which was 11 presidents ago—the Cuban people have suffered.
In the meantime, we’ve seen the Berlin Wall crumble and the Soviet Union break up. We’re even trading with Vietnam, our old Cold War nemesis.
Yet with Cuba, almost nothing seems to change. Maybe we should change our approach.
Let’s flood the Cuban economy with American goods and services and permit Americans to travel there without restriction. This could be exactly the right way to inspire more Cubans to support the principles that Paya died for.
Symbols are powerful, which is why the media paid so much attention to the recent flag-raising ceremony outside the U.S. embassy in Havana. Imagine the symbolism of Cubans eating food grown on American farms and buying consumer goods stamped “Made in America.”
Perhaps then they would commit themselves to importing not just American goods and service, but also American ideas—and to winning back their own country.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)