Op-Ed

Obama’s decision, pro and con

ROBINSON
ROBINSON

President Obama’s historic opening to Cuba is long overdue — and has a chance of hastening the Castro dictatorship’s demise. Critics of the accord should explain why they believe a policy that has failed miserably for half a century could ever work.

What is it about Cuba that makes reasonable people take leave of their senses? The United States maintained full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, hardly a couple of peaceniks, opened the door to China. History argues powerfully for engagement as the best way to deal with repressive, adversarial regimes. Yet hard-liners insist Cuba must be treated differently.

Visiting the island might change some minds. I went to Cuba 10 times between 2000 and 2004 while researching a book, Last Dance in Havana. Each trip gave me more regard for the Cuban people — and less for the Castro regime.

The Cubans I met were energetic, ambitious, well-educated — and thoroughly stifled by a gerontocratic government that ruled through a combination of calibrated repression, impenetrable bureaucracy and tropical whimsy. What was permissible today might be outlawed tomorrow. I remember once reading a decree listing hundreds of occupations that citizens had briefly been permitted to practice as entrepreneurs — working for themselves, not the state — but that were again being put off-limits. Among them was “birthday party clown.”

Cuba is much poorer than it should be, given its abundant human capital. This is almost entirely due to abysmal economic theory and management; communism, as the rest of the world has realized, is no way to create wealth. But antagonistic U.S. policy has provided the Castro brothers with a convenient scapegoat – and a rationale for repression.

One afternoon, back when Fidel Castro was still large and in charge, I heard The Bearded One speak to a Havana auditorium filled with young athletes. Amid what was basically an extemporaneous paean to patriotism and physical fitness, he worked in boilerplate references to the bloqueo, or blockade – the U.S. trade embargo – and the relentless “aggression” of the hegemonic great power to the north.

For more than 50 years, the Castro government has told Cubans that such luxuries as freedom of expression and assembly unfortunately cannot be granted because of the constant threat from the United States, which sought to destroy the Cuban revolution and erase its accomplishments in areas such as education, medicine and sports.

I’ve met few Cubans who swallowed this line uncritically. But I’ve met many, including bitter critics of the regime, who believed U.S. policy was counterproductive if only because it gave the Castros a nominal reason for clinging to power.

If he follows through on Wednesday’s agreement to establish full diplomatic relations, President Raul Castro will essentially be abandoning this time-tested line of argument. Which suggests he must be pretty desperate.

Indeed, the Cuban economy is so moribund that the government has been forced to permit a once-unthinkable expansion of the private-sector economy. Cubans can now legally buy and sell property, and entrepreneurship – while still limited – is encouraged. The reforms may be tentative and half-baked but they reflect a grudging acknowledgement that socialist principles won’t put food on the table.

This desperation is why Obama won a deal so lopsided in favor of the United States. He released three Cuban spies who have already served long terms in prison. In return, Cuba released Alan Gross – who never should have been arrested or imprisoned in the first place – and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo who spied for the United States inside Cuba, plus a reported 53 political prisoners who have been languishing in Cuban jails.

Establishing full diplomatic relations should be seen as a U.S. gain, not a giveaway. As we have learned from experience with the rest of the erstwhile communist world, anything that gives Cubans more exposure to American values and ideals is for the good. Vocal opponents of the Castro regime should be pressing Congress to completely lift the travel ban and the trade embargo. Fill Havana’s hotels with sales reps and property developers; flood Varadero’s beaches with sun-seeking U.S. tourists.

None of this is a “lifeline” to the Cuban Communist Party, which is no more likely to be overthrown anytime soon than the Chinese version. The agreement should properly be seen as leverage that can, and I believe will, move the Cuban regime toward deeper and more meaningful reforms. History will record this as a very bad week for the Castro brothers and a very good week for the Cuban people.

Eugene Robinson

In recent months, the outlook for the Castro regime in Cuba was growing steadily darker. The modest reforms it adopted in recent years to improve abysmal economic conditions had stalled, due to the regime’s refusal to allow Cubans greater freedoms. Worse, the accelerating economic collapse of Venezuela meant that the huge subsidies that have kept the Castros afloat for the past decade were in peril. A growing number of Cubans were demanding basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly.

On Wednesday, the Castros suddenly obtained a comprehensive bailout — from the Obama administration. President Obama granted the regime everything on its wish list that was within his power to grant; a full lifting of the trade embargo requires congressional action. Full diplomatic relations will be established, Cuba’s place on the list of terrorism sponsors reviewed and restrictions lifted on U.S. investment and most travel to Cuba. That liberalization will provide Havana with a fresh source of desperately needed hard currency and eliminate U.S. leverage for political reforms.

As part of the bargain, Havana released Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who was unjustly imprisoned five years ago for trying to help Cuban Jews. Also freed was an unidentified U.S. intelligence agent in Cuba — as were three Cuban spies who had been convicted of operations in Florida that led to Cuba’s 1996 shootdown of a plane carrying anti-Castro activists.

While Mr. Obama sought to portray Mr. Gross’ release as unrelated to the spy swap, there can be no question that Cuba’s hard-line intelligence apparatus obtained exactly what it sought when it made Mr. Gross a de facto hostage.

No wonder Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s leading dissident blogger, concluded Wednesday that “Castroism has won” and predicted that for weeks Cubans will have to endure proclamations by the government that it is the “winner of its ultimate battle.”

Mr. Obama argued that his sweeping change of policy was overdue because the strategy of isolating the Communist regime “has had little effect.” In fact, Cuba has been marginalized in the Americas for decades, and the regime has been deprived of financial resources it could have used to spread its malignant influence in the region, as Venezuela has done. That the embargo has not succeeded in destroying communism does not explain why all sanctions should be lifted without any meaningful political concessions by Cuba.

U.S. officials said the regime agreed to release 53 political prisoners and allow more access to the Internet. But Raul Castro promised four years ago to release all political prisoners, so the White House has purchased the same horse already sold to the Vatican and Spain.

The administration says its move will transform relations with Latin America, but that is naive. Countries that previously demanded an end to U.S. sanctions on Cuba will not now look to Havana for reforms; instead, they will press the Obama administration not to sanction Venezuela. Mr. Obama says normalizing relations will allow the United States to be more effective in promoting political change in Cuba. That is contrary to U.S. experience with Communist regimes such as Vietnam, where normalization has led to no improvements on human rights in two decades. Moreover, nothing in Mr. Obama’s record of lukewarm and inconstant support for democratic change across the globe can give Ms. Sanchez and her fellow freedom fighters confidence in this promise.

The Vietnam outcome is what the Castros are counting on: a flood of U.S. tourists and business investment that will allow the regime to maintain its totalitarian system indefinitely. Mr. Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life.

Washington Post Editorial

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican Party’s point man on Cuba, seemed to be struggling to contain his fury as he responded to President Obama’s move Wednesday to normalize relations with the Cold War foe.

The Cuban-American legislator, addressing a roomful of reporters and photographers in the Capitol, chopped the air with his right hand, fired off terse answers to questions and, frequently raising his voice, spat insults at the Obama administration:

“Absurd.”

“Disgraceful.”

“Outrageous and ridiculous!”

“Concession to a tyranny.”

“Based on an illusion, on a lie.”

“Conceding to the oppressors.”

“Willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works.”

Fox News’ Chad Pergram asked Rubio why he was so confident the Cuba shift would be a disaster and not a success like the Camp David accords or the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, which also had their critics.

“Because I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does,” the senator replied.

Another questioner pointed out that younger Cuban-Americans support normal relations with Cuba.

“I don’t care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba,” Rubio answered.

He threatened to use his new position as a subcommittee chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block the nomination of an ambassador to Cuba and the building of an embassy there.

Rubio’s emotional — and at times inaccurate — response to the policy change shows why Obama’s move to normalize ties to Cuba after more than half a century is both good policy and good politics. It’s good policy because it jettisons a vestigial policy that has stopped serving a useful purpose, and because it is a gutsy move by Obama that demonstrates strong leadership and will help revive him from lame-duck status. It’s good politics because it will reveal that the Cuban-American old guard, whose position Rubio represents, no longer speaks for most Cuban-Americans.

Florida International University, which annually polls Cuban-Americans, found this year that 68 percent favor diplomatic relations with Cuba. Only 41 percent of those 65 and older favor normalization, while 88 percent between the ages of 18 and 29 do. But Rubio was responding with his gut, which has been seasoned by the unwavering dogma of Cuban exiles. He began his remarks with the phrase “As a descendant of Cuban immigrants and someone who’s been raised in a community of Cuban exiles,” and he observed that “Cuba is close to home for me, both because of my heritage, also because of the community I live in.”

This immersion has filled Rubio with faith-based logic, and an absolute certainty of outcomes that cannot be knowable. “I now know for a fundamental truth that this is going to make the day democracy comes to Cuba even further away,” he proclaimed. He further asserted that “I know this regime’s true nature. I interact with people that have been oppressed by it every single day. These changes will do nothing to change their behavior towards the Cuban people. 1/8 The regime 3/8 will be just as repressive a year from now as it is today.”

Before appearing in the Senate TV studio, Rubio granted an interview to Fox News in which he said that “Barack Obama is the worst negotiator that we’ve had as president since at least Jimmy Carter.” That would be the Jimmy Carter who negotiated the still-successful Camp David accords. By the time the 43-year-old Rubio gave his news conference, he revised that line, calling Obama “the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.”

But Rubio had more trouble when The Washington Post’s Ed O'Keefe asked the Catholic lawmaker what he would say to Pope Francis, who intervened to encourage negotiations and to receive delegations from the two countries at the Vatican. “My understanding is that the influence that His Holiness had was on the release of (American Alan) Gross, which I’ve not criticized.”

A statement from the Vatican suggested its interest was broader than that, and the pope offered his “warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations.”

The senator had a different view than the Holy Father’s. “In short, what these changes are going to do is they will tighten this regime’s grip on power for decades to come,” he said.

That’s the doctrine of senatorial infallibility, and it usually ends badly for its adherents.

Dana Milbank

© 2014, Washington Post

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