The Difference between Talking and Marching

The Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges was once invited to deliver a lecture at Peru’s most respected university. It was 1965. By then he was elderly and blind, and Peru was under a military dictatorship that was considered “Progressive.” Borges, a classical liberal, was outspoken against the regime’s military authoritarianism.

He was accosted on the campus by student supporters of the regime harshly protesting his presence. When the students’ militant chants finally died down, Borges was asked by one of them: “Mr. Borges, how is it possible for an intelligent person like you to hold unpopular positions that go against the course of history?”

He calmly replied: “Listen, young man, don’t you know that gentlemen only defend causes that are lost?”

This anecdote came vividly to mind as I reflected on President Obama’s trip to Cuba, and how standing up for freedom and democracy in Cuba has now become a quixotic fight.

President Obama should have regretted his visit the moment he arrived. At the airport, he was not greeted by General Raúl Castro or Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel but by a small delegation headed by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. Just a few days before, Díaz-Canel had welcomed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the airport. Apparently, President Obama did not deserve that level of courtesy.

During the hours leading up to President Obama’s arrival, Cuban security forces had begun arresting dozens of peaceful protesters. The regime’s cool reception, and the detentions just before, delivered a message of contempt that President Obama chose not to heed.

For nearly six decades, Cubans opposing this communist dictatorship have based their struggle on the fundamental principle of a free Cuba. That foundation, however, has now been replaced by the effort to promote diplomatic and economic ties between the United States and the Castro regime. The change in U.S. policy is defended as more realistic given that a free Cuba appears to be a lost cause.

President Obama and General Castro, in a bizarre news conference, stressed those evolving ties. A visibly annoyed Castro–who had agreed to answer only one question from the assembled reporters–responded to a question on political prisoners by claiming that Cuba has no political prisoners. President Obama hinted that “hopefully” the United States and Cuba can learn from each other about human rights.

The most famous visual from this historic visit will undoubtedly be that of President Obama as he stood in front of a government ministry building painted with an enormous mural of Che Guevara. This quote from Guevara should illustrate the ignorance and incompetence of a presidential staff that allowed the photo.

If the nuclear missiles had remained [in Cuba] we would have fired them against the heart of the U.S. including New York City. The victory of socialism is well worth millions of Atomic victims.[1]

To fully understand the damage to the aspiration for freedom inflicted by this reorientation of American policy, it is necessary to apprehend the powerful role of anchoring in negotiations. As any experienced business negotiator knows, an anchor establishes a reference point around which a negotiation will revolve.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, was one of the first researchers to study this concept. He explains that anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered. Once an anchor is set, we use it to make most subsequent judgments. For example, the offering price for a house anchors its value (real or not) and most purchasing offers use it as a starting point for the process of offer and counteroffer.

General Raúl Castro has masterfully set an anchoring trap for the United States by forcefully and repeatedly anchoring Cuba’s position on the elimination of U.S. economic sanctions and on billions of dollars of reparations to Cuba for the supposed damages caused by its trade embargo of the island. President Obama has repeatedly reinforced the Cuban anchor by calling for an unconditional end to economic sanctions, and, in recent days, the lifting of the embargo.

This crowds out discussion of political freedoms. At most we hear perfunctory talk on the topic of the rights of Cuban citizens. General Castro set his anchor, and our policymakers have failed to understand the trap they are in or to adjust accordingly.

To which Kahneman would say:

If you think the other side has made an outrageous proposal, you should not come back with an equally outrageous counteroffer . . . Instead you should make a scene, storm out or threaten to do so, and make it clear—to yourself and to the other side—that you will not continue the negotiations with that number on the table.

I see no evidence that U.S. negotiators are prepared to follow Kahneman’s advice. They have so far sought to accommodate General Castro at every step. It may well be, to paraphrase Borges, that only gentlemen and ladies are left to defend lost causes. By strengthening and legitimizing the Castro regime, President Obama may have set back the cause of freedom perhaps by decades. Despite his efforts, his legacy in international affairs will not resemble that of President Nixon’s historic visit to China.

In terms of international diplomacy, a presidential visit is the highest recognition one government can bestow on another. What has Cuba done to have deserved such an honor from the United States?

In 2015, an alliance of Cuban groups opposing the Castro regime launched a campaign for rights and liberties spearheaded by peaceful marches identified as Todos Marchamos (“We All March”). Each Sunday, hundreds of Cuban citizens march peacefully demanding amnesty for political prisoners of the regime only to be brutally suppressed by General Castro’s security forces.

The Cuban marchers are “motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama protesting racial injustice in the American South. At that time, the legislatures of Southern States had maintained a series of discriminatory practices that disenfranchised African Americans not unlike the way Cuban citizens are disenfranchised in Cuba by the Castros’ totalitarian regime.

Fifty one years after the Selma marches, the first African American President visits Cuba, where disenfranchised Cubans march each Sunday for their rights and liberties. Their marches are inspired by Dr. King’s teaching that “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

The Castro government prevented the Todos Marchamos groups from carrying out their peaceful march during President Obama’s visit. It arrested group leaders preventively, intimidated them, restricted their movements, and more.

Many of the Cuban marchers are black and yet an African American President chose to look the other way as the Cuban version of the Selma marches for civil rights was thwarted.

To his credit, President Obama did meet with some opposition leaders in the U.S. Embassy in Havana. And in his much-anticipated speech on the final day of the visit, the President spoke in defense of democratic values, diplomatically encouraging the Cuban leadership to tolerate dissent.

But that may be precisely where the President’s failure lies. His prescription for success is anchored exclusively on his persuasiveness and oratorical eloquence. President Obama should remember what it took in Selma.

[1] From Guevara’s interview with Sam Russell of the London Daily Worker, November 29, 1962.