By Paul Bonicelli in The Federalist:
How To Salvage Obama’s Failed Cuba Initiative
Obama’s Cuba initiative has gotten less attention than the Iran deal, but it’s almost as bad. Cuba is not the security threat that Iran is, but it is still a security threat because the Castro brothers hate the United States and continue to enjoy warm relations and scheming with Russia, Venezuela, drug traffickers, and various other U.S. enemies, not to mention continuing to harbor terrorists and cop-killing fugitives from U.S. justice.
Like the Iran deal, which saw the mullahs get everything they wanted and the United States get nothing, kowtowing to Cuba encourages our enemies and discourages our friends, such as the pro-democracy Cubans on the island and in the United States. How else could it play out when Raul Castro refused to budge on the dictatorship’s policies and the administration, as with the Iran deal, showed that any deal was better than no deal?
Some call it legacy-shopping, but that is only part of the story. This policy is in line with what we have seen for seven years from Obama: the United States is big and bad and has caused all problems in the world; if we withdraw, genuflecting before our enemies, then sweetness and light will break out.
Let’s Review Recent Cuba Events
A bit of history: In 2014, Pope Francis offered his good offices so the Obama administration and the Cuban regime could discuss how to normalize relations. That’s bad enough given that U.S.-Cuba relations are deeply divisive and the split is bipartisan. But to discuss this in secret demonstrates that the president intended all along to do another end-run around Congress, and to do everything with executive power no matter how chaotic the result would be. The goal was never a bipartisan and whole-government approach to a thorny and divisive issue that has been festering for over 50 years. Rather, it was to try to force Congress to do what Obama wants, which is to end the embargo codified into law under President Clinton and a Republican Congress. No one is surprised by this, but all should be bothered by it.
This January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced progress between the two governments and the intention to reopen embassies in the respective capitals. The administration also began easing restrictions on trade, travel, and investment—as much as it could do short of lifting the embargo—and took Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism even though they continue to harbor terrorists from Spain, Colombia, and the United States.
In July of this year, the embassies reopened to much fanfare. Kerry and Castro crowed and beamed, and Kerry had the indecency to prevent Cuban political dissidents from attending at the ceremonies. Their presence would mar the narrative that we had somehow done a noble thing by re-establishing normal relations and opening embassies. But it is ignoble to relinquish leverage against dictators who imprison thousands for thought crimes and hold millions in economic slavery under a failed communist system.
Cuba Continues to Squeeze Its People
During all these months that Obama has been caving to Castro, Castro has repeated his mantra that nothing on the island will change: Marxism-Leninism will continue to guide politics, economics, and civil society. Absent from all the negotiations has been any U.S. demand that the Castro regime implement democratic reforms, free political prisoners, and stop beating up democratic activists like the Ladies in White (these women dress in white and walk to church together in solidarity with male loved ones imprisoned for political activism).
On the contrary, persecution of dissidents has increased during the negotiations and even after the United States granted Cuban demands. Castro has even upped his demands (like the Iranians have) by demanding that the United States compensate Cuba for property and monetary losses U.S. actions have led to over the years. He doesn’t say anything about Cuba returning property stolen from U.S. citizens under the regime, nor did Obama demand it.
So the current state of affairs is one in which the United States gives up leverage without receiving anything in return. The only things left as leverage over Cuba are the embargo and several statutes that cover exports to Cuba. As long as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 (Helms–Burton Act) is in force, the Obama administration cannot normalize economic relations to any significant degree, as the Castro regime is demanding.
It is no surprise that almost all the Republican candidates for president criticize the Cuba initiative while the Democratic candidates support it, including calling for ending the embargo. (Hillary Clinton flip-flopped on this one, no surprise.)
What Congress Can Do about Cuba
So, what is to be done if you abhor the Castros’ brutal regime and want to see Congress defend the liberty of the Cuban people and the security of the United States? Well, a few things.
First, Congress should hold a series of hearings to expose the myths and falsehoods used to bolster the president’s new policy. Hearings could focus, for example, on the true state of Cuba’s involvement with U.S. enemies, its complicity in drug trafficking, and its continued harboring of fugitives from U.S. justice.
Second, hearings featuring the testimony of economists, dissidents, and activists would demonstrate that more economic interaction will not promote economic growth and more tourism will not promote social and political change because the regime controls everything and everyone. When only the military and Communist Party can hire labor and receive majority-share investments, and when the average Cuban is legally paid in worthless pesos rather than in the convertible currency tourists use, then no economic growth will occur. Only an economic illiterate would think otherwise. The regime profits from such arrangements, but not the people, and the regime greatly needs an economic lifeline given the state of its economy and benefactors such as Venezuela.
For all the talk of Western tourists coming in greater numbers and influencing Cuba away from communism, we should remember that for decades Canadians, Europeans, and others have been enjoying Cuban beaches and nightlife and not one change in the regime has come about because of it. The regime just pockets the money and keeps on repressing. Think about that next time you hear someone extolling the virtues of trade and travel with Cuba.
Finally, Congress should challenge the president to make good on his and the secretary’s repeated assertions that democratic reforms in Cuba are important to the United States. Congress should require the administration to appoint an envoy responsible to the secretary of State to report on Cubans’ political and economic freedoms and to represent to the Castro regime the expressed demand that it implement reforms. This official should meet with both dissidents and government officials and, if the regime balks, reverse course.
Lest anyone think that critics of the Castro regime and of Obama’s policies have no plan and no goal other than to carp and complain, they have actually had a plan in place for almost 20 years: the Libertad Act, which codified the embargo under Bill Clinton. It contains a pathway to normal relations with full economic interaction. All the Castros have to do is embrace democratic reforms and the rule of law. Now, is that too much to ask? I know it is for the Castros, but for a U.S. president, it should be a given.
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