‘Prisoners of History’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

What does Secretary of State Kerry mean when he says, as he did today in respect of Cuba: “Our leaders – President Obama and President Castro – made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history”? The occasion was the raising of the Stars and Stripes at our embassy at Havana. This was done by the same three men who, as young Marine Guards, struck the colors 54 years ago. We don’t mind saying their action today was a moving occasion.

But what is this business about the two presidents being “prisoners of history”? The phrase sits uncomfortably with the Sun. What were these two presidents doing? Were they out for a stroll on the beach somewhere when, suddenly, they were sprung upon by History, cuffed, and dragged off to jail? Was President Raoul Castro a prisoner of history along with President Obama?

What about their predecessors, Fidel Castro for Cuba and, say, George W. Bush or William Clinton? Were they, too, prisoners of history? On what charges? Were they guilty? Mr. Kerry’s formulation is followed by some malarkey about how, “for more than half a century, U.S.-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics.” It’s more neutralist language from a man who proved to be a summer soldier in the Cold War.

The way Secretary Kerry spoke made it seem that the man who once threw away his war medals sees moral equivalence in which innocent “relations” got caught in resin and preserved. If it seems like a kind of linguistic dodge, it would all be of a piece with the administration’s evasion of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which is known as Libertad or Helms-Burton. It sets strict terms for the government treating with a transition government in Cuba.

The major preconditions are that all political activity must be permitted in Cuba and that Cuba releases its political prisoners and commit itself to “free and fair elections.” Such preconditions also include, among other things, that Cuba is showing progress toward “an independent judiciary” and is allowing “independent trade unions.” Another condition is that the government “does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.”

That is the supreme law of the land in America, like the Constitution, the treaties, and all other laws passed by Congress. Yet Secretary Kerry, who’d just gotten in from Hanoi, was silent on all this as he talked so eloquently in Havana. That may be because when President Clinton signed the measure, he issued a signing statement calling key provisions of the law “precatory.”

We demur. Helms-Burton deserves to be respected in both letter and spirit. It was not history that kept prisoners in the Cold War. The innocent prisoners were the ones held by the Communists. Few of them suffered in a system more devoid of due process or under conditions more cruel than those in Castro’s dungeons. It is a betrayal of them to speak in morally equivalent terms of the struggle for which they gave their lives.

In Cuba’s struggle for freedom, there were seasons when Jose Marti kept his office in the newsroom of the Sun. From the Sun Building, the flag of Free Cuba fluttered over lower Broadway. Today the big journalistic backer of what Messrs. Kerry and Obama are doing in Cuba is the New York Times, which, when Marti perished in battle for a free Cuba, mocked him as a “commonplace poet” who resorted to “lies, false news, and calumny” in a campaign to “pillage under the pretext of ‘Cuba libre’.” Prisoners of history indeed.

The New York Sun

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