FP: Where Does U.S. Policy Toward Cuba Go From Here?

Sunday, April 19, 2015
By Jose Cardenas in Foreign Policy:

Where Does U.S. Policy Toward Cuba Go From Here?

With this week’s perfunctory delisting of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is clear President Obama can’t give away the store fast enough. The apparently antiquated diplomatic notion that when engaging an adversary you use your leverage to try and exact concessions that get you closer to your objective is evidently not for him. Instead, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “Mr. Obama’s Cuban diplomacy has been one unreciprocated offering after another.”

Even worse than that, the administration now finds itself in the humiliating position where the Castro regime is placing conditions on the United States to upgrade diplomatic relations: i.e., ending the terrorism designation, returning the Guantánamo naval base, ending support for dissidents, and so on.

What we are witnessing is a truly remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, piece of statecraft. Give your adversary everything he wants and then see what happens, historical experience be damned. In his own words, the president explained his policy as out to “test a proposition,” as he engages with the last dictatorship in Latin America. That is, by dropping a confrontational approach with an ideological enemy, the United States can induce them to mend their ways and become more responsible citizens in the global family of nations.

But the idea of using Cuba as some sterile academic exercise is troubling, to say the least — a captive nation as some sort of guinea pig. What the president’s approach means is that U.S. policy will now subordinate the Castro regime’s harsh treatment of its own citizens — and its unabated campaigns to undermine U.S. interests around the globe — to an effort to “build trust” with an octogenarian regime that hasn’t change its behavior after 56 years in power. Change and hope, indeed.

That is a far cry from what the president said in 2008, when he told an audience of Cuban Americans that his policy toward Cuba would be “guided by one word: libertad,” and that “the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.”

Following last week’s friendly “interaction” with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, we can drop that pretense. It’s all been swept aside for a new approach based on hoping to “create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people,” as the president said in Panama.

In other words, it appears U.S. policy today is all about opening the economic and travel spigots just a little bit wider to try and improve the day of the average Cuban just a bit more; meanwhile, their future (or lack thereof) still belongs to the Castro brothers. Of course, the administration still proclaims fealty to democracy and human rights, but Obama’s actions in Panama belied his words. The photograph of the smiling president and dictator seated together was all the Cuban people needed to see that what it all means is that they may get an extra ration of rice and beans and a little bit more income if they are lucky enough to work in the tourist sector, but the regime remains fully in charge.

It is a sad denouement of 50 years of a principled U.S. stand on freedom and democracy for the Cuban people. Critics of U.S. policy point to the regime’s longevity to mock that stance, but it is less an indictment of those who oppose engagement with the Castro dictatorship than it is of the regime’s legion enablers, many of who constitute the fiercest critics of past U.S. policy.

Fortunately, many members of Congress are vehemently opposed to Obama’s proposition testing on Cuba. Besides seeing it as a betrayal of Cuban rights activists and a diminution of everything the United States stands for on the global stage, they consider it a pointless and wasteful exercise destined to fail, proving again what five decades have already proven: that this is a regime uninterested in diluting its power or else making nice with the United States.

Congress, of course, cannot reverse Obama’s decision, but it can make it more difficult for the administration to implement its new policy and it can continue to highlight the costs and expected adverse consequences for freedom and human rights on the island and broader U.S. interests. Until November 2016, that is about the best that can be done.