It’s too soon to pass judgment on President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Cuba, but this much can be said: if he doesn’t hold an exclusive meeting with Cuba’s peaceful opposition leaders, his trip will help legitimize the longest-ruling dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
Obama may give us a pleasant surprise, and prove that Republican presidential hopefuls and others who automatically criticized his March 21-22 trip to the island were wrong. He could show skeptics that direct contact with Cuba is more effective to advance the cause of universal freedoms on the island than trying to isolate it.
But judging from the first White House statements on the visit, it’s doubtful whether Obama will have the sort of high-profile meeting with opposition leaders that would have a real impact in Cuba.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that, during his stay in Cuba, Obama will meet with Cuban ruler Gen. Raúl Castro and “members of civil society, including those who certainly oppose the Cuban government’s policies.” My translation: that’s a room full of people from all walks of life, including many government supporters, where a handful of dissidents will get lost in the crowd.
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Such an Obama meeting with Cuba’s “civil society” would be a sham. It would allow Cuba’s official media — the only ones that are allowed on the island — to portray it as a gathering of the visiting U.S. president with a cross-section of Cuban society, including government-paid “intellectuals” who wold be the only ones to appear in the local media.
Sure, the White House could use the occasion to take a picture of Obama with the handful of dissidents in the room, for domestic consumption in the United States. But that would miss the whole point of his trip, if the president is sincere in his claim that through engagement with the Cuban regime he will help open up Cuba’s society.
In Cuba, for nearly 60 years now, the ruling Castro family has pretended that there is no political opposition, and that anybody who dares to exercise his or her universal right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is a foreign agent. That’s why the regime demands that visiting dignitaries abstain from meeting with opposition leaders, and wants any such meetings to be disguised as larger gatherings with “civil society.”
Eager to make history and cement Obama’s foreign policy legacy as the U.S. president who restored ties with Cuba, much like Richard Nixon did with China, U.S. officials have argued that the United States has normal ties with many dictatorships, including China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. U.S. presidents going to these countries do not have separate meetings with opposition leaders. Why should Cuba be treated differently? they ask.
Well, there is a powerful reason that Obama aides conveniently ignore: unlike China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, Cuba is in the Western Hemisphere, and is bound by various regional treaties — including pre-1959 Organization of American States statutes and the 1996 Viña del Mar declaration, which was signed by Fidel Castro — to respect representative democracy and freedom of the press. There are no similar agreements with China, Vietnam or Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, Obama would be breaking a bi-partisan U.S. tradition dating from the mid-1970s to defend human rights and democracy in the Western Hemisphere. That policy has been followed by Democratic and Republican presidents since 1976, when former President Jimmy Carter decided to put an end to the times when U.S. presidents embraced dictators in Central and South America, and allowed U.S. policy in the region to be dictated by United Fruit and other U.S. corporations.
My opinion: Obama is right in saying that isolating Cuba has not worked, and that it’s time to try something new.
But if he keeps granting Cuba everything that the Cuban regime demands without pushing the limits of government censorship and repression on the island by holding an exclusive meeting with opposition leaders, as presidents usually do when traveling to any civilized country, he will be breaking a five-decade bi-partisan U.S. policy of defending democracy and human rights in Latin America.
What’s worse, he would be setting a precedent for returning to the dark days when the United States tacitly or actively supported Latin American dictators. I, for one, hope that Obama will not make that dangerous mistake.
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