Cuba remains set in its ways

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, is leading the U.S. talks with Cuba.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, is leading the U.S. talks with Cuba. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Less than four months after it was announced that the United States would begin thawing relations with Cuba, the two sides are moving quickly to reestablish full diplomatic relations. But when it comes to human rights, Havana’s regime still appears frozen in time.

As President Barack Obama and 34 leaders of Latin American countries, including Raúl Castro, prepare to meet at next weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Panama, there is pressure to finish the negotiations between the old Cold War enemies, but the deadline should not be an excuse to give short shrift to the topic of human rights.

The latest round of talks dealt with considering Cuba’s removal from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a key stumbling block. Explaining the official argument in favor of the move last week fell on Stefan M. Selig, undersecretary of Commerce for international trade, who said: “The world has changed.”

Of course, the world has changed, but the dictatorial nature of the Cuban state has not. After a handful of meetings with U.S. diplomats, led by Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, there appear to be few concessions from Cuba.

Internally, the Cuban regime maintains the repressive attitude that has allowed it to stay in power for many decades. That includes harassment of peaceful groups like the famed Ladies in White. The daily arrests, acts of repudiation and censorship of any person or group that questions the official line remain as enduring signs that Cuba is not surrendering its hardline ways.

Ms. Jacobson recently explained that Cuba’s removal from the list of terrorist countries still depends on Havana’s behavior and that control of the decision-making process remains in the hands of very few. Clearly, the world has evolved, but the concentration of power in Cuba not so much.

Ms. Jacobson summarizes the state of the negotiations this way: “I know it appears as if we haven’t achieved anything, but after 50 years of distrust, we’ve made a lot of progress. Publicly, much movement won’t be seen until we open an embassy.”

Meanwhile, Cuba hopes to find an escape route from financial disaster with the lifting of travel restrictions and the arrival of more U.S. tourists, who are expected to pump millions of new dollars into the island’s economy.

Ms. Jacobson said a sticking point for the Cubans in regards to reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana is the level of access that should be given to Cubans on the island as well as American citizens. “An embassy is an embassy,” she said.

We urge U.S. negotiators to insist that the rules governing visits to the embassy in Havana by local citizens be the same as the rules that apply at any American embassy in the world, no matter how much Cuba’s government objects.

Human-rights abuses should be of paramount interest as U.S. diplomats try to fashion a new relationship with Cuba. “Cuba thinks that it’s meddling on our part, but we believe those are international obligations,” Ms. Jacobson rightly observed.

At meetings, Cuba often criticizes U.S. affairs, with tirades the our diplomats must tolerate, but that should not influence the U.S. commitment to pursue human rights objectives. When President Obama attends the meeting of hemispheric leaders, he should make it clear that though his administration wants better relations with Cuba, this will not come at the expense of the rights and civil liberties of the Cuban people.