Did Obama's Cuba Speech Pass the Carter Litmus?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
President Obama had a good moment today. But not enough to justify his trip.

In a nationally televised speech in Cuba, he told Raul Castro "not [to] fear the different voices of the Cuban people -- and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders."

Yet, unfortunately, Obama then spoke about rights and freedoms in general terms -- as what he believes -- rather than as universal rights.

"So let me tell you what I believe. I can't force you to agree, but you should know what I think," Obama hesitantly said as he began to read off a list of rights.

The same thing happened yesterday during the official press conference.

Pressed by CNN's Jim Acosta, Raul Castro fell apart trying to answer a question about political prisoners in Cuba. Another good moment.

But then after the press conference, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, seemingly tried to give Castro cover, "it’s their belief that they are not political prisoners, that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law."

Not to mention former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, who clumsily sought to downplay human rights in Cuba (in favor of business interests) by parroting Castro's contortions.

"Somebody mentioned today, there's a lot of factors -- 50, 60 different factors of what human rights are," said Gutierrez.

Yes, that "somebody" was General Raul Castro.

Let's compare Obama's speech to that of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who in 2002 also spoke to the Cuban people in a nationally-televised speech from the University of Havana.

Granted, Obama's persona and the historical timing of his speech are different than Carter's, but that should have given Obama even more leverage -- not less.

Moreover, Carter's speech was also filled with apologies and mea culpas. But at least it reflected clarity in key universal values and highlighted the courageous efforts of Cuba's democracy movement.

Here's an excerpt of Carter's remarks:

"Except for the stagnant relations between the United States and Cuba, the world has been changing greatly, and especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. As late as 1977, when I became president, there were only two democracies in South America, and one in Central America. Today, almost every country in the Americas is a democracy.

I am not using a U.S. definition of 'democracy.' The term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948, and it was defined very precisely by all the other countries of the Americas in the Inter-American Democratic Charter last September. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and nongovernmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.

Only such governments can be members of the OAS, join a Free Trade Area of the Americas, or participate in the Summits of the Americas. Today, any regime that takes power by unconstitutional means will be ostracized, as was shown in the rejection of the Venezuelan coup last month.

Democracy is a framework that permits a people to accommodate changing times and correct past mistakes. Since our independence, the United States has rid itself of slavery, granted women the right to vote, ended almost a century of legal racial discrimination, and just this year reformed its election laws to correct problems we faced in Florida 18 months ago.

Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements. Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.

My nation is hardly perfect in human rights. A very large number of our citizens are incarcerated in prison, and there is little doubt that the death penalty is imposed most harshly on those who are poor, black, or mentally ill. For more than a quarter-century, we have struggled unsuccessfully to guarantee the basic right of universal health care for our people. Still, guaranteed civil liberties offer every citizen an opportunity to change these laws.

That fundamental right is also guaranteed to Cubans. It is gratifying to note that Articles 63 and 88 of your constitution allows citizens to petition the National Assembly to permit a referendum to change laws if 10,000 or more citizens sign it. I am informed that such an effort, called the Varela Project, has gathered sufficient signatures and has presented such a petition to the National Assembly. When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country."

In comparison, Obama's speech fell short.