WSJ Editorial: Obama’s Havana Promenade

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
From The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board:

Obama’s Havana Promenade

The President and Raúl Castro trade tales of moral equivalence.

President Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday for an historic visit that is part of his final-year victory lap of accommodation with U.S. adversaries. We wish there were more evidence that his rapprochement with the Castro brothers will do as much for the Cuban people as he hopes it will for his legacy.

Mr. Obama wants the world to see this moment as comparable to Ronald Reagan’s 1988 trip to Moscow, but there is a crucial difference. When Reagan went to Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev had already concluded that the Soviets had lost the Cold War and had begun his perestroika reforms. Raúl and Fidel Castro and their military regime have been able to pocket Mr. Obama’s diplomatic and economic blessings without giving up any control.

As long ago as the mid-1990s we endorsed an end to the trade embargo in order to ease the misery of the Cuban people. But that would not require this week’s spectacle in Havana in which Raúl and Barack are palling around like old comrades. Nor did it require Mr. Obama on Monday to balance his pro forma criticism of Cuba’s human-rights violations with the concession that Mr. Castro also has some good points about America’s ills—such as the lack of universal health insurance.

Mr. Castro, no political fool, chimed in that Cuba has equal pay for equal work for women and men—unlike some other countries. The American President didn’t point out that Cuba’s pay is the equality of mass poverty except for political elites.

Mr. Obama is gambling that engaging Cuba with American business and tourists will gradually erode Cuba’s political control. But gradual may be a long time. “Give me a list” of political prisoners, Mr. Castro said at their dual press conference, “and I will release them immediately.” The Cuban American National Foundation immediately released a list of “47 verified political prisoners.” Will they be freed before Mr. Obama leaves town?

Human-rights groups estimate that last year there were more than 8,600 political arrests in Cuba, followed by more than 2,555 in the first two months of 2016. The government arrested more than 200 dissidents in a broad crackdown over the weekend, and a procession by the peaceful dissidents known as the Ladies in White on Palm Sunday in Havana was disrupted by police only hours before Mr. Obama arrived. The ladies were roughed up and arrested.

As for ending Cuba’s economic isolation, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Canada have been trading with, and investing in, Cuba for more than two decades. The problem is that the state controls the economy to a greater extent than any government outside of North Korea. Private foreign investors can only be minority owners with government entities, which are seeking new capital without new management.

Foreign companies on the island aren’t allowed to contract with workers. All Cubans are hired and paid by the state, which takes their hard currency wages and pays them in pesos. Employees may not organize into unions. It is illegal for a foreign employer to compensate a worker with something extra for a job well-done. Foreign investors can be stripped of their assets and jailed without due process.

But perhaps we’re missing Cuba’s historic turn toward freedom, which Mr. Obama keeps promising is just around the corner. On Monday he announced that Google has “a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island,” adding that “change is going to happen here, and I think Raúl Castro understands that.” Thanks to Chinese investment Wi-Fi is already available on the island. The issue is whether individual Cubans will be allowed to use it uncensored, which they currently cannot.

Americans of goodwill sincerely hope that Mr. Obama’s embrace of the Cuban dictatorship will lead to greater freedom for average Cubans. So far it’s merely enhanced the prestige and power of the dictators.