President Obama wants to go to Cuba in the worst way. And it will be in the worst way if he visits Havana this spring before the Castro government has made substantial improvements on human rights. Which they show no willingness to do.
Nevertheless, Obama is said to be planning a trip to Cuba in March. Officials say that the president would like to see movement on human rights before he goes, but believes his presence there will force rights concessions by the Castro government. That assumption belies more than five decades of revolutionary misadventures, marathon speeches scalding the United States, spy networks, diplomatic deceptions and a missile crisis that almost caused nuclear Armageddon. Los hermanos Castro have a long history of sucker punching American presidents. And getting away with it.
But President Obama wants his Nixon-in-China moment, a foreign policy victory for the ages and he’ll pay any price to get it. He evidently thinks his very presence in Cuba will be a kind of freedom toothpaste that Raúl will not be able to put back in the tube. Obama’s visit may inspire ordinary Cubans with expectations of hope and change, but what does Raúl want? U.S. dollars to prop up an aging, authoritarian regime.
Obama will be greeted with a big abrazo from Raúl, who will have accomplished what his brother Fidel could not: Luring an American president to Cuba with afalse promise of openness, making him look credulous and naive, After Obama’s gone, Raúl will be laughing all the way to the World Bank. And the International Monetary Fund.
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In the year since the new relationship was announced, the U.S. appears to have made all the concessions. Cuba, as far as anyone can tell, has made none that matter. U.S.-owned properties seized by Fidel after he took power? Nope, still in Cuban hands. U.S. criminals like Joanne Chesimard who’ve been given safe haven? Still there. Ladies in White and other pro-democracy dissidents? Still being harassed, beaten, detained and jailed. Raúl promised the old guard that nothing would change and he has kept his word. Nothing important has. The so-called “dialogue” about normalization has been una calle en sola direccion, a one-way street.
At the same time there’s been an even harsher crackdown on pro-democracy activists. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights says there were 930 political arrests in December, nearly twice as many as in the same month a year ago. Altogether, the CCHR says more than 8,600 dissidents were arrested in 2015. With barely a peep from the Obama administration.
I recently asked the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, if he had raised the issue of human rights abuses with his Cuban counterparts. He smiled and said they’d had some “lively conversations.” That’s diplo speak for serious arguments. And yet, there’ve been no concessions on rights by Castro regime.
U.S. visitors, meanwhile, have poured into Havana and beyond in record numbers for “people-to-people” visits since tourism is still not allowed. U.S. airlines will soon resume regular flights. Cruise ships will dock. Agricultural and other U.S. business interests are itching to get in. Their allies in Congress want Cuba to be able to buy on credit, which has been forbidden until now. For the Cuban government, the new relationship has been a godsend since Venezuela’s economy is in tatters and their oil subsidy worth considerably less.
What has the U.S. gotten in return? Talks on drug trafficking, property claims and an agreement on environmental matters. A resumption of mail service. A broad agreement on direct flights. Not bad, but not much. The prime beneficiary so far is the Cuban government, not the Cuban people. .
Obama’s strategy is to improve the lives of the Cuban people while by-passing their government. Sadly, that’s almost impossible. Cubans did catch a break when Raúl allowed licenses (out of economic necessity) for a wave of cuentapropistas, small business owners who’ve shown remarkable grit and resourcefulness. Some have been quietly helped with expert advice and encouragement from Miami health care mogul Mike Fernandez and former U.S.. Commerce Sec. Carlos Gutierrez. They and about a dozen other prominent Cuban American business executives put aside old grievances to help nascent Cuban entrepreneurs in the hope of creating a self-sufficient civil society
That may also be President Obama’s goal, but he’ll look weak and feckless if he goes to Cuba before the Castro regime takes its boot off the neck of Cubans who simply want more freedom. Who want the right to speak and publish freely. To come together without fear of harassment from government thugs. To vote for candidates of their choice in free elections. Visiting Cuba before any of these things happen will put the presidential imprimatur on the repressive status quo.
The time may come when a visit to Cuba by an American president is called for. That time is not now.