WaPo Editorial: Despite Obama's Engagement, Cuba Continues Repression

Thursday, July 2, 2015
From The Washington Post's Editorial Board:

Despite Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement,’ Cuba continues its repression

IN ANNOUNCING the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, President Obama said “nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight” by his policy of “engagement.” That’s just as well because in the first six months of Mr. Obama’s normalization of relations with the Communist regime, most indicators of human rights on the island have moved in the wrong direction.

Since December, there have been more than 3,000 political detentions in Cuba, including 641 in May and 220 on Sunday alone, according to dissident sources. Most were accompanied by beatings; at least 20 detainees required medical treatment in May. After Cuba was invited for the first time to the Summit of the Americas in Panama, regime thugs attacked the civil society activists who also showed up.

“Some of us had hoped . . . that there would be a stop to — or at least a lessening of — the beatings” of peaceful demonstrators, wrote activist Mario Lleonart recently, “but we now know that what is happening is precisely the opposite.”

Visits by Americans to Cuba are reportedly up by a third, including plenty of political delegations. But in the months after Mr. Obama announced the diplomatic opening in December, there was also a 120 percent increase in Cubans seeking to flee to the United States. Many worry that once relations are normalized, the United States will stop accepting refugees; according to recent polling, more than half of Cubans would like to leave the country.

Mr. Obama eased regulations on U.S. food sales, but imports of American food to the island, controlled by the state, dropped by half in the first three months of 2015, compared with last year. Netflix announced that Cubans could stream its service — but the charge for an hour of access to one of the few government-controlled Internet hotspots equals 10 percent of a typical government worker’s monthly salary, and independent Cuban Web sites are blocked.

We don’t oppose diplomatic contacts or U.S. embassies in countries such as Cuba, in principle. But the results of Mr. Obama’s initiative so far underline the opportunity he missed in not requiring even modest alleviation of the dictatorship’s repression in exchange for what amounts to a political and economic bailout of a failing regime. Mr. Obama could have sought a guarantee, for example, that the Ladies in White, formed by the families of political prisoners, be allowed to carry out their peaceful weekly marches without arrests or beatings; as it is, attacks on the group have increased sharply.

The State Department also could have insisted that U.S. diplomats have unrestricted access to average Cubans and could have rejected the regime’s demands that ongoing democracy programs be canceled. Instead, a senior U.S. official said that, while access would improve, the State Department had accepted “constraints” on personnel in Cuba similar to those in other “restrictive environments,” and that services provided by the existing interest section, such as Internet access, “might not be so necessary.”

Thanks to congressional opposition, no U.S. ambassador to Cuba may be confirmed anytime soon. But Mr. Obama himself, according to his spokesman, is eager to visit Havana. We’d like to hope that the president will restrain himself until the Castro regime shows some sign of delivering the improvements in human rights he says are the goal of his outreach. So far, U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is looking entirely one-sided.