I’d say that Raúl Castro is still shaking in his military boots over President Barack Obama’s historic speech in Havana — one of the finest moments of his presidency and a jubilant one for the free world. But the octogenarian comandante these days wears the shiny loafers and tailored suits of modern diplomacy.
Still, he’s the same ruthless despot — and it’s looking like there’s nothing the charismatic Obama can do to bring Castro down from the bunker mentality, no matter how generous the U.S. president wields his presidential pen to issue directives, as he did Friday.
One of these was truly Third World-inspired: Obama lifted restrictions on how many Cuban stogies and how much Cuban rum American travelers can bring into the country from Cuba or other countries. Effective immediately, because this is apparently really important stuff, Americans can bring as much as you can carry for personal consumption and gifting.
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that the same American president who delivered in Havana a most eloquent, unprecedented speech on behalf of democracy — winning respect for his human rights-driven policies inside and outside the island — is now turning to … a cigar and rum strategy to win over Castro.
Hey, Raúl, lighten up. We’ll smoke your stogies & drink your rum!
Repression of dissidents — beatings, detentions, surveillance — continues on the rise, in some cases right in front of American tourists and international media. And so, once more, I must ask: Is Raúl Castro becoming the new Fulgencio Batista? Is the U.S. government again giving America’s favorite dictator oxygen to survive in exchange for Americans popping in for some business and vice a la 1950s?
Something to think about, especially since not even the prospect of rampant consumption of Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba cigars nudges the Cuban government even a little in the right direction. On the contrary, this Castro, a so-called “reformer,” swiftly responded to Obama’s new round of favors by clamping down on the Cubans most excited about the American presence — the alleged new class of entrepreneurs.
Castro’s answer to Obama’s easing of trade and travel was to suspend new licenses for private eateries, the paladares that American travelers have found so charming. He also announced that there would be greater scrutiny of those already operating, like the one where Obama and his family dined. Owners have been summoned to meetings and warned that any violations of the Cuban government’s strict conditions for operating the businesses wouldn’t be tolerated. Cuban law, for example, forces these fledgling restaurateurs to buy supplies in state-owned stores that sell at higher prices. Even stricter controls are coming, they were warned.
But this is not the 1950s — and Castro may soon find out how quickly Cuba can lose all it has gained in almost two years of rapprochement policy.
For one, the hyped daily commercial flights to cities all over Cuba are leaving Miami half empty. One airline is so desperate to fill seats that it’s planning to film a soppy, first-ever multigenerational Cuban-American family reunion for a commercial.
Just about every American traveler to Cuba I’ve interviewed has delivered a version of this statement while lavishly praising the Cuban people’s warmth and the beauty of the landscape: “The repression is so palpable.”
Bummer. Turns out American travelers don’t care any more for dictatorships than they do for bad hotel rooms.
As for Cuban Americans, once the Cuban government defiantly warned in the middle of the stampede back to the homeland — and the U.S. Embassy confirmed — that they’re not recognized as U.S. citizens and are subject to the same oppressive treatment as their Cuban counterparts, the nostalgic desire for a spin around the old town evaporated.
Bummer. Turns out photos of old cars and romanticized architectural dilapidation — and oh, yes, all those American flags — have an expiration date as bait.
So here come rum and cigars — and the most outrageous of olive branches: President Obama saying in his Presidential Policy Directive that with this unilateral lifting of restrictions, the United States is “not seeking a regime change.”
Is he saying that those basic freedoms he spoke about in Havana — among them, the right of people who’ve endured dictatorship for almost 58 years to choose political leaders — is off the table as a goal?
We sorely need clarification.
House Speaker Paul Ryan wasted no time capitalizing on Obama’s bad, risky move. Hillary Clinton is ahead in the polls, but Florida isn’t exactly in the bag for her.
“The past two years of normalizing relations have only emboldened the regime at the expense of the Cuban people,” Ryan said Tuesday in a statement. And many other Cuban Americans like me who’ve supported the president’s rapprochement policy found themselves strangely in agreement with the Wisconsin Republican.
President Obama may be full of good intentions. But he came to the complex Cuba issue late in his presidency — and his haste to make part of his legacy delivering, if not exactly democracy, then prosperity to the Cuban people could backfire. He may soon enough learn what every other American president who preceded him came to know first-hand: The Castro dictatorship is an unmovable feast of repression. Neither détente, nor perhaps rapprochement, seems to change that reality.
President Obama can — at least — claim he walked the high, principled road in Havana.
Although right now, it looks like there’s more cigar smoke than legacy — and no good rum for a Cuba libre.