WSJ: The Cost of Obama’s Cuba Policy

Monday, November 7, 2016
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

The Cost of Obama’s Cuba Policy

Exiles who oppose normalization could give Trump Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in a statistical dead heat in Florida, where the state’s 29 electoral votes will be pivotal in Tuesday’s presidential election. One surprise for Democrats is that President Obama’s December 2014 decision to liberalize U.S. Cuba policy is not helping their nominee as the White House expected it to. Instead, it has become a liability.

Mr. Obama and Democrats bet big on the hypothesis that the traditional hard-line approach to dealing with the Castro regime, which encouraged the Cuban diaspora of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, is passe. And that new generations of Cuban-Americans, either U.S. born or more-recently arrived, favor economic and political engagement with the regime.

By spinning the president’s more-liberal travel policy to the island as an opportunity for investors to get in on the ground floor of Cuban change, the administration also hoped to gin up enthusiasm in Miami for his kinder, gentler attitude toward the communist military dictatorship. Mr. Obama’s detente with Cuba was supposed to be a political winner.

Just 23 months later that theory is being tested.

Cuban-Americans who initially supported Mr. Obama’s outreach are increasingly disillusioned with an administration strategy that helps the Castros but leaves out the Cuban people. This could affect turnout among left-of-center voters who care about human rights.

The Obama policy also seems to be energizing greater numbers of conservative and independent Cuban-Americans to rally behind the Republican candidate. A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll released on Oct. 30 had the New York real-estate developer leading Mrs. Clinton 52% to 42% among Cuban-Americans. Some read this as a result of recent Trump efforts in south Florida to make himself a champion of Cuban exiles. But it is more likely a rise in the protest vote.

The U.S. trade embargo, which dates to 1962, was codified into U.S. law in 1996. Lifting it requires congressional approval. But Mr. Obama has normalized relations with Havana, a step aimed at lending legitimacy to the gangster government. He also has used an executive order to liberalize U.S. travel to Cuba and has licensed some U.S. hotels to operate on the island.

The administration’s public explanation for the change was that economic engagement with Cuba would hasten the fall of the dictatorship.

A less charitable reading of Mr. Obama’s motivations suggests that he harbors ideological sympathy for the Cuban Revolution and believes that the Castros would treat Cubans humanely if only the U.S. would demonstrate tolerance for tropical totalitarianism.

Regardless of which narrative you prefer, the president badly miscalculated. Even his supporters have noticed.

A July 1 column in the Miami Herald by Cuban-born Fabiola Santiago, who described herself as having been a supporter “of the president’s policy of engagement with the goal of improving the lives of the Cuban people,” captured the disillusionment. Ms. Santiago was particularly peeved about the opening of the Four Points Sheraton Havana, “brought to you, American traveler, by the people who repress Cubans.”

The columnist explained that the Obama opening was sold as a path that would allow American companies to partner in joint ventures with Cuban entrepreneurs. Instead, she wrote, referring to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which owns Sheraton, “the American hospitality giant is in business with the Cuban military, which owns the hotel.” As she observed, that changes nothing. “We’re only shifting from the Castro brothers and family personally enriching themselves through totalitarian rule to the repressive military now doing exactly the same thing.”

Ms. Santiago quoted the similar sentiments of Richard Blanco, the Cuban-American poet who was tapped to read at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in August 2015: “How will [the goal of bringing prosperity to the Cuban people] be realized if basically they are doing what other foreign investors have done, namely, strike a deal with the government that leaves the ordinary Cubans in the same situation? How is this any better, simply because it’s the U.S.?”

If this is how supporters are assessing Mr. Obama’s Cuba project, it’s not hard to picture Cuban-Americans who either took a wait-and-see approach, or oppose the Obama policy, viewing this election as a chance to vote against it in order to aid their Cuban brethren. By pledging to stick with the policy, Mrs. Clinton has made herself a target.

The Cuban economy is in tatters and the regime is backtracking on promises of reform. Human-rights groups say that beatings and detentions of dissidents have soared since the U.S. extended the olive branch. Yet Mr. Obama keeps making concessions to the Castros, as he did on Oct. 14 when he authorized further sanctions relief.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, the next president will have to clean up this Cuba mess. Decent Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle want answers.