Andres Oppenheimer

Obama’s Cuban vacation

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands for members of the media before a bilateral meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, at the United Nations headquarters.
President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands for members of the media before a bilateral meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, at the United Nations headquarters. AP

Many of us generally support President Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish relations with Cuba, but his upcoming trip to the island, including possible attendance at a U.S-Cuba baseball game alongside Cuban dictator Gen. Raúl Castro, is premature, poorly planned and wrong.

You may be asking yourself what’s the big deal about Obama’s plan to watch the Tampa Bay Rays’ exhibition game against the Cuban national team on March 22, during the president’s three-day trip to the island in the first such visit by a U.S. president to Cuba in 88 years. Well, there’s a lot that’s wrong with it.

Even human rights leaders who support Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba and oppose the U.S. trade embargo on the island say the idea of Obama happily watching a baseball game in Cuba with Castro at his side, as if the Cuban general were the queen of England, is a blow to the victims of Cuba’s human rights abuses.

Obama should engage Cuba, not befriend Cuba. It’s OK for Obama to go to Cuba and improve political and economic ties, much like the United States has done with China’s dictatorship, but it shouldn’t look like a love fest, they say.

“It would be a slap in the face to all of those whose lives have been destroyed by the Cuban dictatorship,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It will make Cubans wonder whether Obama is sincere when he talks about defending human rights in Cuba.”

Imagine if during Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, U.S. President Jimmy Carter would have gone to Chile and watched a soccer game alongside the Chilean general. It would have led many Chileans to wonder about the U.S. commitment to human rights, Vivanco said.

“Most Cubans see Obama as the symbol of hope and change on the island,” Vivanco said. “If they see Obama embracing Castro, they will feel abandoned.”

Obama’s trip to Cuba is premature, because Obama himself had said in a Dec. 14 interview with Yahoo News that he would not go to the island unless human rights conditions there improved. Well, they did not improve, and by some measures they have worsened.

There were 2,555 recorded arbitrary detentions of peaceful oppositionists in January and February this year, up from 489 in December 2014, when Obama first announced his decision to re-establish ties with Cuba, according to Cuba’s non-government National Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

What’s more, Cuba’s official newspaper Granma said in a Wednesday editorial that Obama will be welcome on the island, but that Cuba will not “cede one inch” in its “unconditional commitment to its revolutionary and anti-imperialist principles.”

Obama’s trip is poorly planned, because there was no need to include the president’s attendance at the baseball game. He should make sure that images of him at the game don’t eclipse his scheduled public speech, presumably at the University of Havana, where he should send a strong message to Cubans on the island stressing that human rights and democracy are universal values.

And Obama’s trip is wrong, because he should not cave in to Cuban regime demands that he abstain from having a separate and exclusive meeting with Cuban peaceful opposition leaders. Presidents visiting foreign countries meet with opposition leaders all the time. Obama should not make an exception in Cuba.

As I was finishing this column, Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a meeting with Miami Herald reporters that “if all we are going to do in Cuba were going to a baseball game, that would send the wrong message. But we will be speaking a lot... to civil society.”

My opinion: Obama is too eager to visit Cuba before the end of his term, and to go down in history — much like Nixon when he went to China — as the U.S. president who opened up ties with Cuba.

But, barring a last minute surprise, this looks more like a premature victory trip, which belittles his Dec. 17, 2014 commitment to chart a new course with Cuba that will “include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms.” Drinking mojitos with Castro at a baseball game would undermine that very goal.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” tv show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español