Obama's Shortsighted Approach to Cuba

Thursday, August 20, 2015
By Ellen Bork in The World Affairs Journal:

Shortsighted on Cuba

On Friday, the US took another step in its pursuit of normalized relations with Cuba. Fifty-four years after President Eisenhower broke off relations with the Castro regime in 1961, the American flag was raised over the re-opened US Embassy in Havana in a ceremony attended by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Cuban officials. The US side excluded Cuban democracy activists. Kerry explained in an interview on the Telemundo television network that the dissidents were “not invited … quite openly” “because that is a government-to-government moment, with very limited space, by the way, which is why we are having the reception later in the day, in which we can have a cross section of civil society, including some dissidents.” Of course, it’s possible that the Obama administration never considered including activists and dissidents, and it has not released the guest list. The Guardian newspaper reported that Cuban officials had indicated they would not attend if dissidents did.

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the administration’s behavior was not only revealing but also a bad precedent. If the administration was confronted with a choice, include dissidents or Cuban officials, the answer should have been easy. Go ahead without the officials. In an American embassy in a Communist country and at the outset of a new policy that is troubling to dissidents, the U.S. should take a firm stance on a matter of both substance and symbolism. It’s unlikely the Cuban government would have squandered the opening with the US that is supposed to bring about the end of the economic embargo. On the other hand, perhaps the Cuban side did make it clear they were prepared to do just that, resisting from the outset any concessions to human rights. In which case, it would seem that Washington has more invested in the new policy, and the theater of the flag raising, than Havana does.

Another report suggests the snub of the dissidents is not the only concession Washington has made. According to the New York Times, talks over the renewed relationship nearly foundered over the issue of American diplomats’ freedom to travel within the country. The compromise struck was that the diplomats would give prior notice to the Cuban government. Congress should ask the administration to report in six months what “notice” has meant in practice, whether diplomats are able to carry out their work, and what details of meetings with ordinary Cubans or activists they are sharing with the host government. All of this is taking place within a context of more, not less, persecution of rights activists.

“When one speaks about an unfree country,” Leon Wieseltier wrote recently of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, “one may refer either to its people or to its regime. One cannot refer at once to both, because they are not on the same side. Obama likes to think, when he speaks of Iran, that he speaks of its people, but in practice he has extended his hand to its regime.” In Cuba, it seems the administration is developing a new approach to deal with this truth. In his remarks at the flag-raising ceremony on Friday, Kerry said, “the reopening of our embassies is important on two levels: People-to-people and government-to-government.” The Obama administration is fooling itself with a shortsighted, misguided approach that shows ignorance and disdain for the realities of Cuban Communist rule.