By Amb. Roger Noriega of The American Enterprise Institute:
Obama should say, ‘Let Cubans vote.’
“Let Cubans vote.” Those three words, spoken by President Obama on his planned trip to Cuba, could unite all Americans — including those Americans in neighboring countries — behind a worthy cause. Will a man elected promising “hope and change” advance those objectives in a country where they are genuinely needed? We shouldn’t have to ask.
The president’s visit to Cuba comes as the winds of change have shifted toward freedom, away from the authoritarian populism promoted by the Castro brothers for 60 years. Voters in Argentina recently elected a pro-free-market conservative who has pledged to seek a positive relationship with the United States. In December, Venezuela’s democrats won congressional elections in a landslide and now represent a majority that opposes the Cuban-backed regime that has brought the country to political and economic ruin.
Castro’s acolytes in Bolivia and Ecuador have seen their political prospects plummet in recent months. A socialist government in Brazil is besieged by corruption investigations, succumbing to the rule of law after squandering the country’s oil wealth and taking the economy into recession.
In each of these countries, politicians have to face the polls, where unpopular authoritarians cannot always rig the results. So this would be the very best time for Obama to challenge Raúl Castro to give 11 million Cubans the same right that their neighbors take for granted. A phony “voto unido,” an artifice where Cuba’s communist party approves one candidate for every assembly seat, will not suffice.
The Castros are experts at playing the passive aggressive victim. Raúl may say, “Cubans will vote, if….” “Cubans will vote, when….” “Cubans will vote, but….” Obama can short-circuit such arguments by rallying the region to press Castro to simply “Let Cubans vote” in elections in which opposition candidates can campaign and communicate at least as freely as they do in every other country in the Hemisphere.
When a Cuban named Oswaldo Payá dared to petition the Castro government formally — gathering signatures from tens of thousands of Cubans asking for a pluralistic democracy — he ended up dead, murdered in 2012 when police ran his car into a tree. His daughter, Rosa María, has launched an international campaign, “Cuba decide”—“Cuba decides.” This is the hour when the community organizer in Obama can do great things to help an oppressed majority by backing the simple proposition that people should decide their own future.
Obama’s normalization of diplomatic relations with Havana has been scorned by those who see it as a careless gambit that failed to recognize that one can help the Castro dictatorship or the Cuban people, not both. Even the president’s critics in Congress might be persuaded to pass a bipartisan resolution backing a declaration by him to, “Let Cubans vote” — urging him to deliver that message in meetings with dissidents, to the regime’s leadership, and in a national broadcast.
There is reason to doubt Obama’s intentions. He has continued to heap concessions on the Castro regime, despite repression that dissident leaders say has increased since Washington’s rapprochement. Obama has called on Congress to scuttle the preconditions for lifting the embargo on a post-Castro Cuba — which were approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton: freeing political prisoners, dismantling the police state, and committing to free elections, independent courts, and workers’ rights.
The dirty little secret is that Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that cannot meet any of these conditions. The idea that Obama would dumb down US standards and break faith with the Cuban people to embrace such a regime is damning evidence that he is motivated by ideology and not principle.
After a year of indulging the Castro regime and getting nothing in return, President Obama can vindicate his outreach to Cuba with three simple words, “Let Cubans vote.” He should care less about Raúl Castro’s response, which is altogether predictable, than about the judgment of history. If Obama refuses to redeem his visit with this sort of meaningful gesture, his stop in Cuba will amount to a grave robbery, where he stole a photo-op and left 11 million Cubans to rest in peace until someone who cares comes along.
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