Obama Should Help Cubans, Not Castro

Saturday, January 17, 2015
By Amb. Roger Noriega in AEI's The American:

Obama should help Cubans, not Castro

Touted as a historic shift in US-Cuba relations, ironically, the Obama administration’s latest initiatives serve to reinforce the status quo — legitimizing and benefiting a regime that has a 55-year track record of opposing change.

President Obama’s new Cuba policy is taking shape this week as his administration announced high-level talks on diplomatic recognition of the Castro regime and released new regulations to liberalize travel to and transactions with the island. Touted as a historic shift in US-Cuba relations, ironically, all of these initiatives serve to reinforce the status quo — legitimizing and benefiting a regime that has a 55-year track record of opposing change. Accepting that this is not what the president intended, he must get serious about engaging the 11 million people of Cuba rather than placating the regime that torments them.

The State Department has announced that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba this month to advance the normalization of diplomatic relations. The highest-level US official to visit the island in 50 years, Jacobson will lead the latest round of migration talks — which may touch on the remarkable 117 percent increase in the number of Cubans fleeing their homeland in the month since Obama’s rapprochement with Castro.

This week, the Treasury Department announced new regulations to make it easier to travel to Cuba to visit family members or for other broadly defined purposes — journalism, research, humanitarian aid, cultural exchange, and more.  These regulations do not authorize tourism, per se. However, recent history has shown that even specific licenses for so-called people-to-people exchanges were routinely abused to include rum tastings, golf outings, and sailing regattas. The agencies that oversee these licenses have no strategy for policing abuses, according to congressional staff. The problem is that US tourism could represent a billion-dollar windfall to Cuba’s hospitality sector — all of which is co-owned by the regime, with most of the industry operated by the military, and much of  it located on property confiscated from US nationals.

The regulations also authorize a substantial liberalization of restrictions on cash transfers in support of families, private microenterprises and farms, and humanitarian projects.  In addition, the administration proposes to allow US telecommunications companies to offer services and products and even invest in Cuba. Perhaps the strongest argument against these concessions is that the administration failed to seek assurances from the regime that entrepreneurs would not be harassed or over-taxed and that Cubans would be allowed unfettered access to the Internet and communication with the outside world. Without such requirements, the regime will vacuum up remittances and shake down US companies while restricting benefits to the Cuban people.

President Obama’s accord with the Castro regime has been met with bitter skepticism among the island’s leading dissidents. They know that the last American who tried to offer Cuba’s small Jewish community Internet access, Alan Gross, was jailed for five years for his efforts. They know that one of their own who sought a dialogue with the regime under the rules of Castro’s own constitution, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, was killed when the secret police ran his car off the road in southeastern Cuba in July 2012.

The administration’s backers have excoriated Cuban dissidents who have challenged the logic behind Obama’s new policy. For example, former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution snarled that these Cubans must either “engage” with the Castro regime “or perish.” No doubt, Feinberg regrets his harsh critique, which exposes a remarkable indifference to the systematic oppression of the Castro regime. Payá spent 15 years trying to engage his government, until he lay dead on a country road.

Cuba’s dissidents, independent journalists, bloggers, and others will continue their freedom quest — but they should not have to do so alone. President Obama should dispatch a high-profile, personal envoy to key Latin American, Caribbean, and European capitals to explain how he intends to engage Cubans other than Castro. He should invite his counterparts to join him in explaining these efforts at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.

Surely, these governments can agree to call on Cuban authorities to liberate all political prisoners; allow people to exercise their political liberties, as detailed in the Inter-American Democratic Charter; commit to organizing free elections as soon as possible; end the ban on the importation of books; grant unfettered access to the Internet; stop the electronic jamming of international news broadcasts; permit Cubans to travel to and from their island without restrictions; allow independent journalists — both Cuban and international — to practice their profession openly and freely; allow the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to make its first visit to Cuba and to establish a permanent office to monitor conditions in that country; and give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to inspect Cuban prisons and jails.

Those in the US Congress who know Cuba best have questioned the president’s engagement of the regime as a strategy for bringing about change on the island — not because they hope he’s wrong but because they know it. Unless he redeems himself with a vigorous international campaign for helping the people of Cuba, his new approach will do more harm than good.