A critical power of the presidency is the ability to shine a spotlight on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. So, thanks to President Bush's October 23rd speech on Cuba and Fidel Castro's deteriorating health, it's not surprising that the issue is generating more discussion and drawing more ink in our daily newspapers.
Cuba is at a crossroad, but is the island any closer to achieving a democratic government and tackling the challenges of a rapidly growing global economy? And, more importantly, are freedom-loving people in the United States and elsewhere in the world paying attention to this pressing moral issue of our times? Will the world simply stand by and watch Raul Castro and his regime continue their iron-fisted rule over a totalitarian Cuba?
More than a year has passed since the newswires first reported Fidel Castro's poor health and the power-shift to his younger brother, Raul. It seemed as if Castro's death was imminent. To no one's surprise, the large Cuban-American population exploded with celebrations in downtown Miami's Little Havana, in the hope that Cuba might be free once again. It soon became apparent that the jubilee was premature.
Fidel Castro's health improved while Raul Castro seamlessly carried out the daily duties on the island. The historic and decisive transition from Fidel Castro to a successor (other than his brother), something that most experts were predicting, hasn't happened. And with other issues dominating the headlines, Cuba and Castro soon drifted off the front page.
While it would be easy to turn the other way and hope Cuba will decide for itself to choose market-based democracy over communist dictatorship, it's clear there is simply too much at stake for wishful thinking.
At 90 miles from our coast, Cuba is one of our closest neighbors, and whatever road the Cuban people decide to take will surely have tremendous implications for our country and the Western Hemisphere. In this light, The Heritage Foundation has been spearheading a lecture series aimed at generating dialogue by inviting administration officials, Congress members and foreign policy experts to discuss Cuba's options. And while the lecture series only just launched, it's clear that Cuba is a matter of national security, compassion and freedom.
From a national security standpoint, the Castro regime's cozy alliance with Iran and Venezuela poses a particular threat to the United States.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made their hatred toward the U.S. explicitly clear, and their support for terrorism and espionage is well documented. "Castro has spent years strengthening ties and supporting other terrorist groups and organizations around the world. He still continues to do so right now," Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., told a Heritage audience recently. "This guy has been extremely successful in infiltrating our intelligence community here in the United States."
Economically, Cuba stands to gain from trading with us and by opening its doors to a rapidly expanding global economy. In an era when internet-based commerce is booming and the service sector is replacing manufacturing as a means of growing an economy, it's clear why the Cuban people are losing out to the bustling economies in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Unencumbered access to the internet is banned in Cuba; the government controls all internet content and severely limits access even to that. With people struggling to get by, the Cuban people are asking themselves the tough question: has the Cuban Revolution been a success or a failure?
Perhaps the most poignant reason for the Heritage series is the fact that, at a time when the United States is fully engaged in bringing democracy and freedom in the Middle East, the repression of free speech and basic human rights in our own back yard has gone relatively unnoticed. Political prisoners who have spoken out courageously for freedom and democracy remain locked in Cuban prisons. Free and fair elections are non-existent just ninety miles off the coast of our posh beach resorts on the Florida Keys.
This issue extends beyond Miami, Florida or the Cuban-American community. As citizens, it's important that Americans resist sitting on the sidelines at this critical juncture in Cuban history. We must encourage our neighbors to aspire to live in a land that celebrates freedom, democracy and the defense of human rights and civil liberties.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation, heritage.org.
First appeared in San Diego's La Prensa