Obama should cancel Cuba trip if thwarted

A worker uses a jackhammer outside the Havana baseball stadium where President Obama will attend an exhibition game.
A worker uses a jackhammer outside the Havana baseball stadium where President Obama will attend an exhibition game. AP

If President Obama cannot meet with the dissidents of his choice — and of his choice alone — when he visits Cuba this month, then he should just stay home. Sure, it’s his chance to make history, his long-sought Nixon-to-China moment.

But he risks looking weak, sycophantic, should he not conduct the trip on his own terms.

Normalization with Cuba is supposed to be a two-way street — give some, get some. But, since December 2014, the United States has done most of the giving, with the Cuban dictatorship smug with the bulk of the getting. And the Ladies in White are still beaten up and thrown in jail every Sunday.

Relations hit a big bump last week when Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a trip to the island in advance of the president’s visit. According to U.S. officials, the State Department and its Cuban counterparts couldn’t reach “common agreement,” including on access to dissidents.

Friday, however, things had been paved over, with Mr. Kerry and Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, affirming their commitment to making the president’s trip a successful one.

But that will depend on how each side defines success. Mr. Obama should put Cuba’s human-rights abuses front and center. If he mutes the issue, then it allows the dictatorship to assume that it’s not a big deal for the United States, and that there’s absolutely no need for anything to change. After all, the regime is already getting that welcome influx of tourist money since the United States loosened travel restrictions.

It’s imperative that the U.S. administration disabuse President Raúl Castro of that fantasy before Mr. Obama arrives on March 21. So far it has been far too timid, and the regime has been bold in continuing to pull the wool over its eyes. And if it can do so again while Mr. Obama is paraded around Cuba, providing useful optics for Mr. Castro, then that for the regime, will be success.

And Mr. Obama’s visit will have been something akin to failure.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Mr. Obama himself will decide with whom he meets when he goes to Cuba, and that Cuban officials would have no say. At best, that’s optimistic; at worst, it’s pretty naive.

That is why the ground rules must be in place before Mr. Obama is wheels-down in Havana. In fact, many Cuban dissidents have asked President Obama to make his visit contingent on a list of conditions. According to a statement obtained by El Nuevo Herald, they seek “immediate cessation of repression” for those who oppose the Cuban government; that amnesty be granted to political prisoners; that Mr. Obama be allowed to meet with representatives of the opposition.

Yes, “allowed.” Let’s be clear — Mr. Obama is a head of state and must not “allow” the regime to constrict his movements or with whom he meets. In September 1960, a young, dynamic Fidel Castro, fresh off the success of his takeover, attended a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. While in New York, he met with Malcolm X, an American revolutionary who was causing dyspepsia as he led a black-liberation movement. But government officials didn’t interfere with Castro’s ability to commune with him.

That’s how it works in a democracy. Unfortunately, Cuba remains anything but. Better for President Obama to cancel his visit with integrity if he is hamstrung in any way than to become a compromised pawn.