Well into the “Republicans be damned” phase of his second term, President Obama this week touched a third rail — and lived; he visited a mosque, a move that for years he had wanted to make, but never had, likely aware of the fallout.
With less than a year left in his administration, and with the spotlight falling on the candidates vying for his comfy chair in the Oval Office, he made the first-ever stop, in Baltimore, in support of beleaguered Muslim Americans. He hardly created a news splash, but made a powerful statement.
Now, Mr. Obama likely has another controversial visit on his presidential bucket list where he can make another statement of affirmation.
It’s a trip to Cuba, just 90 miles away from South Florida. There is not a whiff of White House confirmation, but rumblings continue that he’s toying with the idea of making a historic visit, possibly in March.
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This much is true: He shouldn’t represent the United States on the island without gaining some real concessions from Raúl Castro’s regime. For real this time.
In anticipation of the possible visit, which will likely make headlines around the world, Cuban dissidents have asked the president to make his visit contingent on a list of conditions.
They request that he ask that there be an “immediate cessation of repression” for those who oppose the Cuban government; that amnesty be granted to political prisoners; that the U.S. president be allowed to meet with representatives of the opposition, according to a statement from dissidents obtained by El Nuevo Herald.
The Forum for Rights and Freedoms said in its online page that Mr. Obama’s visit should be a catalyst for improvement of human rights on the island. After all, wasn’t that the goal of reestablishing diplomatic ties?
Back in December 2014 when the president called for an end to a half-century of hostility, the justification was to “unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans.”
Today there’s little evidence that much has changed in Cuba, except for an influx of tourism dollars because travel restrictions have eased. In fact, detentions have spiked in recent months. The state continues to monopolize radio, television and newspapers, and Cubans continue to flee to the United States by the thousands, via Central America.
Only last Sunday, as denounced by the Cuban independent publication the Journal of Cuba, there were hundreds of arrests on the island. In Guantánamo and Camaguey, police detained more than 170 members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba and the Resistance Front Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
And in Havana, as is routine now every Sunday, police arrested 15 Ladies in White during their traditional march in defense of prisoners along Fifth Avenue in Miramar. The monolithic ideology of the Cuban regime does not accept opposing views. Never has.
But it’s time for Mr. Obama to be far more insistent on this point.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to grant the wily Cuban government unilateral concessions, and asking — and receiving — nothing in return.
It’s past time for the United States to play hardball. But it has been aggravatingly timid in pressing for Cuba to grant its citizens the most basic of human rights.
An Obama visit, which would be a wonderful optic for Cuba, should come as a prize. What if this American president voices those dissidents’ demands before he sets foot on the island? That would be a non-campaign stop worth endorsing.