Anyone who believed that a mutual decision by the United States and Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations would produce immediate changes is bound to be disappointed by the results of the first round of face-to-face talks between top diplomats for the two countries.
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Last week’s talks in Havana, led on the U.S. side by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, produced no breakthroughs on those issues that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, care about the most — namely, human rights. But as Ms. Jacobson told members of the Miami Herald Editorial Board and reporters and editors from the Herald and El Nuevo Herald over the weekend, the issue was firmly put on the table by her team and will remain a priority on the U.S. agenda.
The topic of human rights should always be a central focus of U.S. diplomacy because it is a moral imperative. But it is of particular importance in Cuba because Havana’s dictatorial regime cannot survive without reliance on repression and police-state tactics. The day that Cubans feel free to express themselves openly, enjoy the liberty to engage in peaceful protests and otherwise act like citizens of a free country — that day will mark the end of the communist state.
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But we are a long way off from that. The best way to make progress is for all supporters of freedom in Cuba — the exile community, Cuban dissidents on the island and the U.S. government — to work in tandem to achieve their cherished common goal:
▪ The U.S. government acts most effectively abroad when it has effective diplomatic representation. It makes no sense for critics of the opening toward Cuba, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, to threaten to block the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Havana. Senators should closely question the eventual nominee and exercise their prerogative to give advice and consent on filling this crucial position. But how can it help advance U.S. interests if Cuba has an ambassador in Washington while there is no empowered U.S. counterpart in Havana?
▪ By the same token, U.S. lawmakers who harbor doubts about the wisdom of the White House’s decision should demand that the Cuban government put something substantial on the table before agreeing to drop what’s left of the Cuban embargo. Substantive actions that loosen restrictions on the freedom of ordinary Cubans should be the markers that guide the way toward ending the embargo. No progress on that end, no loosening of the embargo.
▪ Dissidents should test the U.S. insistence that their interests will be taken into account every step of the way by expressing their views directly to American diplomats whenever possible. Ms. Jacobson’s meeting with dissidents, unfortunately, was boycotted by one prominent activist, Berta Soler, who does not agree with the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. Such gestures do little to advance the cause she so ably and bravely represents.
▪ The Cuban government says it’s willing to explore business deals with U.S. telecommunications companies. That opening should be exploited. The easier it is for Cubans to communicate with the outside world and explore the Internet, the more they will be able to slip the leash of government censorship.
Laying the groundwork for the normalization of relations is a painstaking process. It will not produce immediate positive results, but already there is change in the air. Cuba’s freedom is not a question of if, but when.