Must-Read: Obama’s Cuba Policy Lifts Dictatorship, Not Citizens

Wednesday, January 7, 2015
By Ellen Bork in World Affairs Journal:

Obama’s Cuba Policy Lifts Dictatorship, Not Citizens

The trade of Cuban spies for American aid worker Alan Gross and a Cuban intelligence agent working for the US was a trade worth making, but the rest of the deal announced on December 17th showed that President Obama is more interested in changing US policy than changing Cuba.

Havana has taken no steps toward elections or political freedoms for the country’s 11 million people. Even the White House claim that 53 political prisoners will be released is murky; Cuban human rights activists believe the number of actual political prisoners could be more than 100. Some have expressed bitter disappointment that the US would make such changes without getting concessions from the Castro regime, or consulting with Cuba’s democracy and human rights activists.

The White House has expressed concern about arrests and detentions that have taken place in the days after the president’s announcement, but apparently, in the president’s view, now it’s up to American tourists and businesses focusing on the new market to make the biggest impact on improving human rights.

It hasn’t worked in China, which the president cited as justification for his initiative. The US established diplomatic recognition with the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and formally abandoned trade leverage in relations 15 years ago, granting permanent normal trade relations. Then, too, the US decided that business and investment would work just as well or better than diplomatic or economic pressure. The Internet was supposed to run circles around the Communist Party and its repressive apparatus.

Yet the party remains entrenched, and now the human rights situation is getting worse. The Chinese leader, party General Secretary Xi Jinping, has intensified repression with hundreds of arrests. Limited moves toward political reform in the 1980s took place before, not after, China’s economic takeoff, and haven’t been advanced since.

Obama rejects a policy toward Cuba that is “rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” He is referring to the Cold War, but that cuts both ways. President Nixon made the opening to China to find a counterweight to the Soviet Union. When that strategic rationale ended, the US failed to adjust its policy to fit the changed circumstances. At the moment when the US could have pushed harder for political change, in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and with a debate going on inside the regime between liberals and hard-liners, Washington continued with business as usual.

Obama’s own Burma policy should have given him pause on the issue of Cuba. America applied diplomatic and economic pressure there for decades. When glimmers of change appeared and the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her party allowed to contest a small number of parliamentary seats, the Obama administration began to relieve America’s political and economic pressure on Burma. Taken with the prospect of a rare foreign policy success, Washington quickened the pace, establishing diplomatic ties, exchanging presidential visits, and lifting sanctions. Human rights advocates warned Washington had given up too much, too soon.

Just last month, Suu Kyi was asked by the BBC how reforms were going in Burma. “Not too well,” she replied. Among other things, the military-dominated Parliament is refusing to make the constitutional changes necessary for a free and fair national election in which Suu Kyi could compete this year. Of Burma’s supporters in the international community, she said, “They think that they’ll get a happy ending simply by insisting that it is a happy ending and that’s not how things happen.”

With the Castro brothers in their 80s, and a post–Hugo Chávez Venezuela weakened by the decline of oil prices, Obama seized precisely the wrong moment to pursue a nebulous “engagement” policy, based on an approach that has yet to show results for democracy anywhere else.