When US sanctions toward Cuba were first imposed, they were justified as a response to the expropriation of US properties by the communist revolutionary government. That justification changed during the Cold War, when their stated purpose became to isolate the communist nation in order to prevent it from exporting revolution. For the past 20 years, US policymakers have justified sanctions as a means to deny resources to the Cuban regime and support Cuba’s civil society. Promoters of the current policy claim it starves the regime of the resources it needs to oppress its people while empowering Cuba’s civil society so that it may pressure the regime to change. For two decades, defenders of the status quo in both Miami and Washington have gone unchallenged in this view and have positioned themselves as the most legitimate opposition of the Castro regime and the defenders of Cuba’s civil society. With millions of dollars in lobbying money at their disposal and several of their representatives elected to Congress, they have monopolized the debate over US policy toward Cuba while dismissing any diverging views as an effort to support the regime and undermine Cuba’s civil society. This farce, which has kept defenders of the status quo in control of US policy, has finally been undermined.

Last week a group of 74 leaders of Cuba’s civil society released a letter calling on the US Congress to lift the ban on travel to Cuba by all US citizens — not just those of Cuban descent — and to facilitate the export of agricultural products to the island. The letter’s signatories are a virtual who’s who of Cuba’s democracy advocates, including: Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most famous blogger; Elizardo Sánchez, the leader of Cuba’s most important human rights group; Dagoberto Valdes, the founder of one of Cuba’s most important civil society organizations; Héctor Palacios, a political prisoner under conditional release; Gisela Delgado, the leader of the independent libraries of Cuba; Miriam Leiva, a founding member of the Ladies in White and many other leaders of civil society.

In this letter, these civil society leaders undermine the arguments used by defenders of the status quo; mainly that greater openness toward Cuba would merely reward the Cuban regime with an influx of dollars and would shun civil society. “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.” state the signatories of the letter.

Defenders of the status quo in Miami and Washington have responded to this letter with insults and allegations of forgery, ignorance and manipulation, all presumptuous statements by exiles living comfortably in the United States who have not visited Cuba in decades. The authors of the letter however — many of whom have lived their entire lives under the communist system — could teach hardliners a thing or two about democracy and individual rights. In the face of intimidations, insults and even acts of repudiation directed at them by hardliners, the authors of the Letter of 74, as it has become known, have responded with humility and respect.

In their letter, they state that: “we believe that defending each and every Human Right for all people must be an absolute priority, ahead of any political or economic consideration, and that no restriction of these rights can be justified on economic, political or social grounds. We believe that rights are protected with rights.”

The irony of this letter is that in addition to undermining the traditional arguments used by defenders of the status quo for a policy that contributes to the isolation of the Cuban people, the authors also provide us with a lesson in humility and democracy. The question now is whether policymakers will listen to the people they claim US policy is intended to help and whether defenders of the status quo will learn a lesson in humility and democracy from Cuba’s civil society.

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