Editorial: Show Cuba that we respect a free press

President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shake hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last year.
President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shake hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last year. AP

As President Obama prepares to embark next month on a history-making visit to Cuba, he should consider above all how his visit can bring change to the island. A good place to start: Insist that all U.S. journalists who want to cover the trip be allowed into Cuba.

Freedom of speech was an early casualty of the Cuban Revolution. Ever since, Cuba and its people have been denied freedom of expression. The only version of truth in Cuba is the government’s version. That extends to U.S. journalists who focus on the lack of civil liberties in their reports. They are blacklisted and not allowed to return.

The targets include, in particular, many organs of the Spanish-language news media in the United States, among them our sister newspaper, El Nuevo Herald, upon whom the Cuban government has apparently imposed a permanent, blanket ban. Also on the list are well-known journalists in both English and Spanish like Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, and some of the most prominent figures in the world of Spanish-language broadcasting.

Last year, journalists from El Nuevo Herald, among others, were denied entry to cover Secretary of State John Kerry’s ceremonial reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. That was bad enough. But if Mr. Obama chooses to ignore this offense by consenting to the Cuban government’s restrictions on journalists when he becomes the first occupant of the White House since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba, it will surely be taken as a sign of surrender in the struggle to bring more freedom to Cuba.

There is no reason for the White House to acquiesce in this dirty game — and every reason for Mr. Obama to insist on allowing free news coverage.

If Raúl Castro wants the prestige of hosting the leader of the free world, Mr. Obama should make it a point to show that freedom of the press is part of the package. The White House does not get to choose who covers the president, and neither should the Cuban government.

U.S. insistence on lifting the blacklist of U.S. journalists will put Cuba’s rulers on notice that “normalization” imposes obligations on both the United States and Cuba. If Cuba is not willing to accept freedom of the press for its own people at this time, it must at least recognize that the president of the United States has the duty of doing so for U.S. reporters. Mr. Obama can’t be relieved of that duty for the convenience of Mr. Castro.

We get that the Cuban government is afraid of honest reporting, that its leaders fear truth-telling like a vampire fears sunlight. But isn’t the whole purpose of the “normalization” of relations to move the ball forward? Isn’t the goal to take down the barriers to freedom in Cuba?

That is what we believed when we supported Mr. Obama’s decision to renew diplomatic relations. Now Cuba has to put something on the table. It’s a waste of time for the president to make this trip if he is to come back empty-handed or have it devolve into empty gestures and diplomatic rhetoric. He must have something to show for it.

The president’s planned trip has been attacked by critics who say he should avoid visiting a “military dictatorship.” That overlooks a basic point: The policies these same critics enthusiastically endorsed for more than half a century did absolutely nothing to weaken the Castro brothers’ grip on power. It was indeed time for President Obama to try something different. But it’s not too soon to expect the new policy to show concrete results.

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