One Year After Rapprochement, Cuba is No Freer

Friday, December 18, 2015
By Charles Lane in The Washington Post:

One year after rapprochement, Cuba is no freer

Much has changed in Cuba since President Obama and the island’s dictator, Raúl Castro, announced their rapprochement a year ago.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into Cuban government coffers, due to more U.S. tourism and remittances. Havana has negotiated a generous U.S.-tolerated debt restructuring with Western creditors. You can’t walk down the street in Havana, it seems, without bumping into a would-be U.S. investor. And, of course, the stars and stripes wave over a reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana.

When it comes to the elementary freedoms that the Castro regime has denied its people since 1959, though, results are scant.

“This year has been a bad year for us,” democratic activist Antonio G. Rodiles told Post editors Tuesday. Rodiles cited a “huge increase in arbitrary arrests,” as well as his own savage beating by regime thugs in July.

“Raúl Castro has been legitimized and recognized by the majority of the governments of the planet, and played a leading part in a Summit of the Americas, amid flashing cameras and meetings with Barack Obama,” writes independent blogger Yoani Sánchez. “Inside the country, he has not wanted to give even the slightest recognition to his critics, against whom he has continued arrests, mob actions and painful character assassination.”

As for freer telecommunications, there are a few new open-air WiFi hotspots, exorbitantly priced and officially monitored, Sánchez notes. Meanwhile, Washington trumpets a deal to restore snail-mail service between the United States and Cuba — on a date to be announced.

This is what happens when a magical-thinking president runs up against a communist octogenarian who inherited Cuba from his brother Fidel — and aspires to pass it on to his son, the current intelligence chief, and son-in-law, the tourism industry boss.

“Our central premise,” Obama explained to Yahoo News this week, “has always been for a small country 90 miles off the shores of Miami, that if they are suddenly exposed to the world and America and opened up to our information and our culture and our visitors and our businesses, invariably they are going to change.”

If Obama can figure that out, so can Castro; the dictator has every incentive to limit U.S.-Cuban interactions to those he can contain and control, which is what he has done so far. (By the way, Havana is 229 miles from Miami.) When Yahoo News asked Obama to list “concessions” Castro had made, the president couldn’t name one.

Obama wants Congress to lift the rest of the embargo, in part to eliminate one of Castro’s last propaganda excuses. Anticipating that, Castro has declared that, even if the embargo ends, “normalization” as he defines it would hinge on more U.S. concessions, including a handover of the naval base at Guatanamo Bay.

U.S. engagement probably won’t “work” in Cuba any more than isolation did; and Cuba is not analogous to China, to which it’s often compared.

There was no real alternative to trade and engagement with a geopolitical giant such as China, human rights notwithstanding. Tiny, impoverished Cuba offers no strategic compensation for legitimizing its dictatorship through business as usual — not even the agreement to protect whitetip sharks and other marine life Washington and Havana so excitedly unveiled.

We could have let the regime stew in its repressive juices, or presented it a “road map” linking changes in U.S. policy to irreversible democratic reforms in Cuba. Let Havana explain why denying free elections for 57 years — 57! — matters more than trade.

Belatedly, Obama is injecting a note of conditionality, telling Yahoo News that he won’t visit the island in 2016 unless he’s free to meet dissidents.

That would be a welcome contrast to Pope Francis’s itinerary, which included a sit-down with the ancient Fidel Castro, but not with dissidents — some of whom were arrested in front of the pontiff.

We’ll see how hard a bargain Obama drives. Would he demand a meeting with Rodiles, who’s among the activists Raúl Castro dislikes most — yet who says U.S. diplomats have snubbed him since the embassy reopened?

Would Obama insist on a live TV speech, as former president Jimmy Carter did in 2002? Or would he settle for a closed-door sit-down with two activists, like the one he held at the Summit of the Americas — and that he cited to Yahoo News as a “precedent.”

Meanwhile, 45,000 Cubans fled the island for the United States this year, partly due to rumors of more restrictive U.S. immigration policies, partly because of what Sánchez calls the “conditioned reflex to escape a hopeless existence.”

“Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather that, over time, you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,” Obama told Yahoo News.

He has all the time in the world to try his theory — before leaving office a year from now. Cubans are tired of waiting.