It’s been almost two years since President Barack Obama announced that he was “charting a new course on Cuba” and lifted numerous U.S. trade sanctions on the island to empower the “Cuban people” and the island’s “emerging private sector.” At the time, reasonable minds could disagree with Obama’s tactics, which ignored the plight of Cuba’s political dissidents, but few could disagree with the president’s purported intent.
Since that Dec. 17, 2014, announcement, there’s been little to celebrate. Political repression in Cuba is at historic highs; emigration has risen to levels not seen since the 1994 flight of rafters; violations of religious freedom have increased tenfold; and the rate of growth of the so-called “emerging private sector” (“cuentapropistas”) has turned negative.
In short, Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse.
Recently Obama and his administration added insult to injury by promulgating rules that allow Americans to do business with Cuba’s state monopolies run by Castro family members. These are businesses and properties confiscated without compensating the owners — stolen — by the Castros’ regime. Many of the owners were Americans or Cubans who fled the island. Three new provisions, jointly promulgated Oct. 14, by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments, send a clear message: The Obama administration has pivoted to support the Castro regime, rather than the Cuban people and their desire for economic and political reform. The new U.S. regulations:
▪ Remove the $100 cap on the import of Cuban rum and cigars for personal consumption. The cap had been imposed because these industries along with their trademarks had been confiscated. U.S. law and prior administrations had never legitimized such theft of private property, trafficking in stolen property, or support to Cuba’s state monopolies. Apparently, President Obama no longer cares.
The biggest beneficiary is, of course, the Castros’ rum industry, anchored by a stolen distillery and its “Havana Club” brand. Jose Arechabala established the distillery in 1878 and began exporting Havana Club rum to the United States in 1934. The Castro dictatorship forcibly seized all of the Arechabala family’s assets in 1960. The family was imprisoned or fled the island with only the shirts on their backs. Today Americans traveling to Cuba can party, drink and take home all the Havana Club rum they like, not knowing or caring that the Castros enjoy the profits.
▪ Narrow the definition of “prohibited Cuban regime officials.” This change grants officials of the Castro government the same access to U.S. financial assistance that, purportedly, was crafted solely to support “the Cuban people and emerging private sector.” As a result, members of Castro’s Council of State; the puppet legislature; political prosecutors; local and provincial regime officials; ministry officials; secret police (Direccion de Seguridad del Estado, DSE) and intelligence agents (Direccion General de Inteligencia, DGI); neighborhood repressors (Comites de Defensa, CDR); media and cultural censors; even prison guards will be allowed to receive unlimited remittances and gifts, set up banking accounts, access and use the Internet to repress Cuban dissidents who have been seeking U.S. support for economic and political reform.
It’s hard to justify this latest “White House gift” amid the dramatic increase in repression.
▪ Permit “contingency contracts” with Castro’s state monopolies. U.S. law prohibits contracts with Cuba’s state monopolies. Sales of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices were Congressionally-mandated exceptions. The Obama administration has now ignored the law to authorize dealings with these monopolies if the contracts include a “contingency clause” stating it won’t be implemented until U.S. law is changed or the transaction is specifically authorized by the Treasury Department. That’s tantamount to stealing the future of the Cuban people.
Obama is so intent on creating a lobby of U.S. corporate interests to pressure Congress into changing the law, that he has invited the Castro family to divvy up and establish a contractual claim to ownership on every potentially lucrative industry or business on the island, leaving the Cuban people with nothing for tomorrow.
The president has repeatedly described U.S. policy toward Cuba as a “relic of the Cold War.” He had to dig deeper into the archives to derive this provision, so reminiscent of an era when U.S. foreign policy famously teamed with Latin American dictators and American corporations, like the United Fruit Company, to negotiate away the economic future of those nations.
There’s no longer any rational strategy behind President Obama’s “Cuba policy.” It has gone from what it initially portrayed as a noble purpose to pure sycophancy in pursuit of “historic firsts.” Unfortunately, those Cuban dissidents who recognized Obama’s intent from the beginning and labeled it “a betrayal” of their fight for freedom have now been proven correct. Their foresight has come at a terrible cost.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C.