Richmond Times-Dispatch: It's Time Obama Shows Backbone With Cuba's Regime

Tuesday, August 16, 2016
By Robin Beres in The Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Freedom remains in short supply in Cuba

It is time that the Obama administration shows a little backbone.

In January 1961, the American embassy in Cuba was abruptly closed as the U.S. State Department recalled all of its personnel and President Eisenhower formally severed relations with the island nation.

Within a few weeks of that decision, the only Americans remaining on the island were U.S. troops stationed on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. For 55 years, relations between the two nations remained more combative than cordial.

But in December of 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced simultaneously that the two nations were going to pursue a new course in their relations.

Obama assured the American people that the outreach would be in line with U.S. interests and would help make “the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.”

On July 20, 2015, American and Cuban diplomats stood side-by-side in Washington as Cuban soldiers raised their national flag over the Cuban embassy. Shortly after the ceremony, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department.

Rodriquez presented a list of his government’s long-standing requests that included compensating Cuba for “human and economic damages” imposed by the American economic embargo on the island nation, ending that embargo, and returning to Cuba the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

The ceremony at the Cuban embassy drew reaction from both pro- and anti-Cuban activists and politicians. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who was born in Cuba, claimed the newly opened embassy in Washington would serve as a “spy hub” for the Cuban government. “Today is a sad day for national security and human rights around the world,” she noted.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, tweeted that engaging politically with the socialist nation “will only serve to further legitimize (the) repressive regime.” Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, both Florida Republicans, also vehemently opposed the new relationship status.

Supporters of the new engagement included Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, and James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, just one of many groups that for years has demanded Congress end the economic embargo. Most activists continue to insist the long-standing policy only worsens human-rights abuses in Cuba.

In March of this year, President Obama and his family flew to Cuba for a historic three-day visit. Just hours before Air Force One touched down at the Havana airport, more than 50 dissidents who were marching to protest human rights abuses were rounded up and arrested — right under the noses of dozens of international journalists.

The president and his family were greeted at Jose Marti Airport by the Cuban foreign minister and other government officials. Noticeably absent among the welcoming committee was President Raul Castro. Whether the elderly dictator’s absence was planned in advance due to weather conditions or was a deliberate snub remains unclear.

So one year later, what’s changed and what hasn’t? What has happened with tourism, trade, and Cuba’s disturbing history of human- rights violations?

On July 20, a senior official at the State Department held a briefing on the status of re-established diplomatic relations. According to that individual, both nations “have engaged on a range of economic, security, cultural and social issues... We remain convinced that our shift from a policy of isolation to engagement is the best course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people and the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Cuba.”

Yes, there have been noticeable signs that trade, tourism, and diplomacy have greatly increased between the two nations. Cruise ships regularly visit the island and numerous U.S. government officials have also visited. Unfortunately, all of this increased activity seems to have benefited only the Castro regime. There has been little benefit to the average Cuban citizen.

In fact, as President Obama must know full well, the lives of ordinary Cubans have not become “a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.” If anything, things have gotten worse.

The State Department briefing was held just one day after The Miami Herald published a less-flattering news story: “Cuba’s human rights abuses worse despite U.S. ties.” The story by Andre Oppenheimer notes that in the past year and a half, the Obama administration’s outreach to Cuba has been generous and Castro’s regime has eagerly accepted the proffered hand.

But, says Oppenheimer, while much has been offered, little has been given in return. He shares a recently released report from the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation.

The report says that the number of political arrests and detentions has greatly increased from a monthly average of 718 in 2015 to nearly 1,100 a month since January of this year. The Cuban government continues to imprison, torture and even execute individuals for whatever it may consider to be an act of civil disobedience.

Protests and assemblies by groups such as the Ladies in White (a group of relatives and wives of political prisoners) more often than not result in beatings, intimidation or trips to jail. There are no protections for free speech in Cuba.

Cuba needs this budding relationship far more than the U.S. needs Cuba. It is time that the Obama administration shows a little backbone and replaces its overly benevolent, naïve approach to the Castro regime with a demand for greater human rights and a true democratic government. Until that happens, Congress is right to keep the embargo in place.