It’s odd, how politicians who praise and reward dictatorships do not live there, were never detained or tortured in their jails and can leave and return to their own countries without a problem. That’s the case of the president of Mexico and the vice president of Colombia when it comes to Cuba.
During his recent visit to Campeche, Cuban dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel received the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest medal for foreigners – and a tight embrace from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photos show them affectionately resting their heads in the other’s shoulder, and smiling in their white guayaberas.
AMLO was happy, and it showed. “You, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, are, for the government I represent, for the government of Mexico, a distinguished, admired and brotherly guest,” the Mexican ruler declared.
This “distinguished guest” so admired by the Mexican president is a brutal dictator, selected without free multi-party elections, responsible for human rights violations and arbitrary arrests in Cuba. The Amnesty International report on Cuba for 2021-2022 denounces the “repression of dissidence,” “hundreds of people” jailed for protesting the lack of democracy, “political prisoners” and even false accusations of attacking the government against one of the authors of the song Patria y Vida.
López Obrador could never allow himself to call Díaz-Canel a dictator. Why, I asked him in an interview in 2017. “I don’t want them to then meddle in decisions that must be made solely by Mexicans,” he carefully replied. Clearly, he did not want to upset voters in the election the following year. But once he was elected president, AMLO revealed himself to be an open defender of the Cuban dictatorship, and now the two countries collaborate on several projects, including a contract for 500 Cuban doctors to work in Mexico.
For her part, the vice president of Colombia, Francia Márquez declared during an official visit to Cuba that the island’s doctors are “the best in the world.” Later, speaking about Cuba’s public health system, she added, “It’s part of what we want to do in Colombia … It’s part of the path and experience we need in Colombia.”
We can have a healthy debate on whether the Cuban doctors are the best in the world, but there are many doubts about the efficiency of the Cuban health system. “The health problems are terrible right now,” singer Pedro Luis Ferrer, who has spent most of his life on the island, told me in a recent interview. “I don’t believe the health system, at least at this time, is working.” Of course Ferrer is not an expert on the issue, but that’s the experience felt by him, his family and many others in Cuba, starting with the constant shortage of medicines.
It’s therefore rather daring to propose that Colombia become like Cuba on health issues. As well as so many other issues, from education to freedom of the press to democracy. Facts: Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez were democratically elected in multi-party balloting by a majority of voters in their country. Díaz-Canel was not. Colombian journalism is among the best in Latin America because of its energy and professionalism. In Cuba, there’s constant censorship and you can’t even sing a song like Patria y Vida in public or on the radio.
In fact, neither Colombia nor Mexico should ever look like Cuba. Their goal should be to move as far away as possible from that 64-year-old dictatorship. But neither López Obrador nor Francia Márquez seem to understand that. They are backing the dark and wrong side of history.
Their message, anti-imperialist and opposed to the US embargo on Cuba, resonates with some sectors of the Mexican and Colombian left. But in 2023 it is impossible to hide the murders, the tortures and the frequent human rights violations and total absence of a multi-party democracy in Cuba. It is not only a matter of defending Cuba’s sovereignty. Respect for and protection of human rights always tops any notion of sovereignty. Otherwise, no one could ever criticize the abuses committed in other countries.
If things were so good in Cuba, we would not have so many Cubans trying to escape the island. The Florida Keys hold many makeshift boats and rafts that are evidence of those heroic and dangerous escapes. But the majority enters the United States by land, after a complicated and expensive trek that starts in Nicaragua.
More than 224,000 Cubans entered the United States illegally in the last fiscal year. That is a record, and 2 percent of the Cuban population, as the El Pais newspaper pointed out.
That regime – where so many want to leave, where repression and the absence of democracy are the norm – is the one celebrated by López Obrador and Francia Márquez. They should go live in Cuba, I see in jokes and less so on social media. Can’t they see what everyone else sees? The humane – and reasonable – thing to do is for the president of Mexico and vice president of Colombia to ask that Cubans get the same rights and freedoms they have. But they don’t dare do that.
Their ideological blinders are bigger. Both had to chose between the tyrants – Fidel and Raul Castro and Díaz-Canel – and the victims of their dictatorships. Sadly, they took the side of the torturers.
Do Mexico and Colombia run the risk of falling under authoritarian regimes? Neither of those nations is like Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela. Their politics are different, and both have a vibrant and democratic civil society that would never allow a turn to dictatorship. But we cannot forget that until recently, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans were selecting their presidents in legitimate elections. Not any more.
Democracies are fragile. They break from the inside, and are never guaranteed. That’s why we must remain alert and denounce authoritarian temptations and dangerous friendships.
To hug a dictator is to be an accomplice. And giving him an award is shameful. Cuba is not an example for anyone. Mexico and Colombia deserve a better future.