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Cuba’s (un)diplomatic behavior cannot go unpunished

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Last week, a routine session of the United Nations Social and Economic Council devolved into pandemonium. As US Ambassador Kelley E. Currie introduced a new human rights campaign called “Jailed for What?,” serving to highlight the over 100 political prisoners currently in Cuba, diplomats from the Cuban delegation heckled her and drowned out her voice by pounding on their desks, turning their backs, and shouting mentirosa! (“liar!”) and slogans about the trade embargo.

The scene was surreal, as if a no-platforming campaign on a college campus had been transplanted by the regime in Havana to the esteemed chambers of the United Nations. The only difference? The speaker was not a controversial political candidate, but a diplomat of the United States.

Cuban diplomats protest the launch of a US campaign on Cuban political prisoners at the United Nations in New York, US, October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The irony here was thick. Cuban behavior proved the US point forcefully. Just as Currie spoke of denunciations, preventive detentions, and Cuba’s unshakeable resort to dictatorship and repression of free speech, the Cuban diplomats ramped up their efforts to silence her. “I think we may be seeing this right now,” she noted dryly.

The continued stifling of dissent in Cuba is an issue worthy of continued focus by the United States. Though the figures are down somewhat this year, through August of 2018, there have already been over 1,600 arbitrary detentions, lasting various lengths of time, to silence regime critics. Cuban political prisoners “are an explicit sign of the repressive nature of the regime and represent a blatant affront to the fundamental freedoms that the United States and many other democratic governments support,” the State Department said in its statement.

Cuba’s continued crushing of internal dissent is a hemispheric security threat to Cubans and foreigners alike. Beyond the island, the Cubans are embedded throughout the security apparatus of Venezuelan dictator, Nicolás Maduro, helping him to weed out and punish regime opponents. They advise and support Daniel Ortega’s increasingly repressive government in Nicaragua. And they find common cause with other strongmen in the region, like President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, rightly called the event a “childish temper tantrum.” Now that Pompeo and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, met yesterday about Cuba’s disruptive actions, it is important that this unprecedented behavior be remediated sharply and immediately. Beyond a stern denouncement by Guterres and platitudes about the need for civility, there isn’t much the United States can push for in a multilateral forum like the United Nations. Bilaterally, however, it’s a different story. The time to punish this behavior is now, especially given its ability to shape the future calculations of Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz Canel. The bizarre microwave incident at our embassy in Havana, as well as this circus at the United Nations, both warrant a diplomatic response from the United States.

Should United Nations-accredited Cuban diplomats — some of whom likely have ties to the intelligence services, and by dint of their position, have the right to attend any open meeting at the UN they wish — be permitted to escape any repercussions for shouting down their fellow diplomats delivering inconvenient truths, it would pose a grave threat to American efforts to roll back the influence of dictators and authoritarian governments the world over. Without repercussions, Cuba will have demonstrated to its authoritarian ilk a successful model for stifling free speech in the halls of diplomacy.

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