Andres Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer: Kerry failed to act on human rights in Cuba

Secretary of State John Kerry deserves applause for saying that human rights will be a top priority in the newly normalized U.S. ties with Cuba, but his decision not to invite Cuban dissidents to the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana flew in the face of his promise.

When I interviewed Kerry last week shortly before his trip, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State to Cuba in 70 years, he said that “human rights obviously is at the top of our agenda, in terms of the first things that we will be focused on in our direct engagement with the Cuban government.”

Video: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to Andres Oppenheimer on Cuba 

He even told me that he plans to discuss with Cuba a “sort of roadmap” to full normalization that ultimately will involve the lifting of the U.S. embargo, and Cuban steps, such as allowing Cubans “to engage in a democratic process, to elect people.” To his credit, he reiterated these themes in Havana, where he stated that “the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders.”

All of that sounded great. But then, during his trip to Havana, Kerry did not invite Cuban dissidents to attend, alongside Cuban officials, the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy, which was the highlight of his 10-hour trip to the island. Instead, some peaceful government opponents were invited among hundreds of guests to a separate event later that day at the residence of the U.S. charge d’affairs in Cuba.

When I asked Kerry in our interview why he would not include dissidents among his guests at the U.S. Embassy, he downplayed the significance of that decision. “Rather than have people sitting in a chair, at a ceremony that is fundamentally government to government, with very limited space, I will meet with them...and exchange views” separately, Kerry told me.

But Republican critics and many human rights groups say the Obama administration caved in to the Cuban regime, which refuses to participate in diplomatic events attended by Cuban dissidents. In Cuba, the five-decade-old Castro family dictatorship prohibits independent political parties, and brands peaceful opponents as “mercenaries.”

Some opposition leaders who were invited to the charge d’affairs residence declined to attend.

“We do not understand how the U.S. administration could accept the conditions of these dictators,” said Antonio Gonzalez Rodiles, one of the dissident leaders who declined the invitation, to the website El Diario de Cuba.

Bertha Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White who has been arrested more than a dozen times in recent months for staging peaceful protests, told me in a telephone interview that the Obama administration pays lip service to human rights, but keeps a “shameful silence” about ongoing rights abuses in Cuba.

Since Obama announced the start of normalization talks Dec. 17, there have been more than 3,000 political detentions in Cuba, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Kerry says that full diplomatic relations, more U.S. tourists and greater commercial relations will help bring about change in Cuba, although that make take time. He told me, “Let’s just let this work. It’s an opportunity.”

My opinion: Of all the things that Kerry told me , there is one in which I fully agree with, which is that the previous U.S. policy of confrontation with Cuba didn’t work, and that it was time to try something new. No question about that.

That’s why, when Obama first announced that he would start normalization talks on Dec. 17 while simultaneously continuing to “strongly” press for democratic reforms on the island, many of us agreed with him. A two-pronged, carrot-and-stick policy of restoring ties while pressing for human rights is worth trying.

But now, I wonder if it hasn’t become a one-track policy. Kerry’s trip to Havana didn’t break new ground on human rights even symbolically, and in effect hurt Cuba’s fledgling internal opposition by making it look irrelevant in the eyes of many Cubans.

Could it be that Obama is so eager to visit Cuba before he finishes his term — to go down in history as the U.S. president who “opened” Cuba, much as Nixon “opened” China — that he is willing to sacrifice the human rights cause? Could it be that he is so eager for a foreign policy victory that he is willing to abandon a long-standing U.S. policy of moral support to pro-democracy activists?

I hope I’m wrong on this, but Kerry’s trip to Cuba was a first big test of Obama’s new Cuba policy, and the administration didn’t pass it.

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