Obama’s message to the people of Cuba

A poster welcoming the visit of President Obama to Cuba features portraits of Raúl Castro and the American president.
A poster welcoming the visit of President Obama to Cuba features portraits of Raúl Castro and the American president. AP

President Obama must deliver three messages directly to the Cuban people during his ground-breaking trip to Havana this week: (1) The United States and its people are not the enemy. (2) Cubans must have a direct say in their own future through free and fair elections. (3) Normalization is a two-way street.

U.S. is not the enemy

For decades, ordinary Cubans have been bombarded with propaganda about U.S. hostility. It’s hard to trust average Americans when the Cuban government emits a daily barrage of messages designed to instill public fear of U.S. intentions.

The notion is patently false. But in Cuba’s cocoon of isolation and a government monopoly of the means of communication, suspicion lingers.

The best way for Mr. Obama to erase the notion of America as the enemy is to reject the idea, inspired by malicious government propaganda, that exiles can’t wait to pounce on Cuban properties when the time comes to settle claims for expropriation.

Compensation for valid claims is a government-to-government process. It will not affect the lives and well-being of Cuba’s people, or their right to keep the homes where they live and other property they may claim.

The Cuban-exile community represents a uniquely American success story that the president should highlight. In an environment where their ingenuity has been allowed to thrive, Cuban-Americans have excelled. They want to use their skills to help Cubans on the island secure a better future for themselves. Normalization will not come at the expense of the Cuban people.

Let Cuba’s people decide

Mr. Obama’s speech to the people of Cuba is a pivotal moment. He is the perfect messenger, and his visit to Cuba is the perfect time and place, to proclaim the universal appeal of American values.

The core tenet of Americans is that all people deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are inalienable rights, and they belong to Cubans, as well as to Americans and people everywhere.

Proclaiming American values should be part of Mr. Obama’s message. He comes from a place where the opposition enjoys freedom of speech. Cuban dissidents should also have a right to speak and act freely without fear of arrests and beatings.

Political rights, he should say, are best secured by the democratic process, by the free election of leaders at every level of government. Cubans are ready to embrace freedom. If the Castro government considers it a seditious idea, it’s only because it deems freedom itself seditious, but that should not keep an American president from speaking directly to the Cuban people on this issue.

Where’s the reciprocity?

A key part of President Obama’s plan to improve relations with Cuba is a relaxation of economic sanctions to foster improved commercial ties. U.S. travel, currency and investment restrictions have been eased or lifted altogether. The Castro government has done nothing in the way of reciprocity.

How about letting foreign companies hire workers directly? Or making state regulations more transparent? Or relaxing rules on the tiny private sector?

Normalization is a two-way street. Mr. Obama must tell the Cuban people directly that he wants to move faster. Their own government is holding back, and holding back the Cuban people in the process.