U.S. should crack down harder on Cuba

Former President Obama, seated with Raúl Castro, normalized relations with Cuba, but failed to bring about democratic reforms there.
Former President Obama, seated with Raúl Castro, normalized relations with Cuba, but failed to bring about democratic reforms there. Getty Images

With provocative headlines on North Korea and Russia and a new secretary of State pending, it’s easy to ignore critical U.S. interests closer to home — like Cuba, only 90 miles south of Florida.

The Obama administration’s unwarranted concessions to the Castro regime failed to bring about democratic change. Cuba remains a Communist dictatorship that violates the rights of its people regularly. Unfortunately, this month’s power succession is unlikely to change much. The new president will be selected without input from the Cuban people who only rubber stamped the Community Party list for the National Assembly last month.

That is not democracy.

The United States must support a democratic Cuba, because free people build stronger, more stable nations. Moreover, we have serious national-security concerns with the Cuban regime’s actions in the region. Today, as in 1959, Cuba is the primary sponsor of authoritarianism and anti-American sentiment in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Nowhere is this negative influence clearer than in Venezuela where Cuban intelligence and military services violently suppress dissent and undermine democratic institutions. Cuban influence is also evident in Bolivia and Nicaragua where autocratic governments sympathetic to the Cuban and Venezuelan dictatorships are entrenching themselves against the will of their citizens.

The Cuban threat is not limited to influence operations in the region. In 2013, the Cuban regime attempted to smuggle weapons to North Korea. In 2015, Cuba reportedly had paramilitary and military special forces units in Syria, and in 2016, news reports surfaced that Russia was expanding its presence in Cuba and seeking to reopen a military base. Most recently, we learned that 24 U.S. diplomats suffered attacks in Havana that resulted in serious health repercussions.

Under the Obama administration, the Cuban regime benefited from a policy that ignored the suppression of human rights and propped up the oppressive Cuban military. This only led to a stronger assault on democracy in the region, a situation untenable for the United States.

President Trump has changed course and taken important steps to restrict U.S. dollars from reaching the Cuban regime. But, the United States should consider additional measures because of the illegitimate power succession this month, Cuba’s continued assault on democracy in the region, its role in directly exacerbating the Venezuelan crisis and the unresolved attacks on American diplomats who suffered harm on Cuban soil.

Trump’s new Cuba regulations are steps in the right direction, but I support expanding the initial list of restricted Cuban entities to include other sub-entities under the control of the Cuban regime, including those in the tourism sector that contribute to human-rights abuses. I also support increased sanctions against leaders of the Cuban dictatorship and their families, more U.S. assistance to promote democracy on the island, results-oriented broadcasting consistent with President Reagan’s vision for Radio Marti and strategic action to prevent the spread of Cuba’s assault on democracy in the region.

We should further restore the Cuban Medical Parole Program, prioritize justice for the thousands of U.S. victims with property claims against the Cuban regime, and do more to address the illicit ties between Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.

While the Cuban regime often blames the United States for its economic troubles, Cuba’s own economic mismanagement, oppressive Communist system, and authoritarian crackdown on its people have led to an exodus of skilled Cubans and stunted economic growth. U.S. law provides very simple terms to the Cuban regime if it wants improved relations: liberate all political prisoners; hold free, fair, multiparty elections; and legalize labor unions, independent media, and political parties.

The Cuban regime will continue to blame the United States for its problems, but that shouldn’t deter us from addressing the Cuban threat to U.S. interests in the region and standing in solidarity with the Cuban people in their efforts to reclaim their freedom.

U.S. Rep. Paul Cook represents the Eighth District of California and is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.