When it was announced that USAID worker Alan Gross, who had been unjustly held prisoner by Cuba for the last five years, was being released, I, like so many other Americans and Jews, rejoiced. My feelings were best put into words by former Florida governor and possible future presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who said he was “delighted” by the news.
Shortly thereafter, we heard that President Obama had agreed to lift economic restrictions on the communist dictatorship and reestablish diplomatic ties, a reversal of the last 50 years of policy. The president, in statements through his press office and in personal remarks to the media, insisted that the proposed lift of the embargo was not a concession he made to Raul Castro as a means of securing the release of Gross. He and his allies argue that it isn’t just a necessary evil required to bring back a man who was, in essence, a hostage, but that, in and of itself, normalizing relations with Cuba is a good thing.
Whether or not it is worth granting such a great concession to secure the release of a hostage is a terribly difficult decision to make. On the one hand, Mr. Gross and his family deserve to have no stone left unturned in trying to free him from captivity. On the other hand is the tragic historic example of the revered Gadol, the Maharam of Rottenburg, who refused to allow himself to be ransomed for a sum which he held was more than he was worth, because it would only encourage more hostage taking. In this case, the ransom — the lifting of the embargo — would put the Cuban regime in a better position to commit more atrocities, by expanding its economic power.
Whether or not the Maharam’s refusal to be ransomed applies to the case of Alan Gross, whose health was failing but who was not being threatened with death, can be debated, both in terms of halachah and hashkafah. One can only pray that one never finds oneself in the position to have to make such a decision.
But let us take the president at his word, and assume that the Gross release and the easing of restrictions on Cuba are unrelated. If so, we can debate the easing of restrictions and reestablishing of diplomatic ties on its own merits, and not as a necessary evil that was needed to bring back one of our own.
President Obama has advocated for a change like this since 2008, when he was first running for the presidency. But then, the president more or less agreed with those who are panning his proposed policy shift. As The Washington Examiner’s Byron York points out, the president set a precondition on any change in our relationship with Cuba in a May 23, 2008 speech, when he said that he “…will maintain the embargo… It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with [a] clear choice. If you take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That is the way to bring about real change in Cuba, through strong, smart, principled diplomacy.”
The changes that have been made in the Cuban economy vis-à-vis economic freedom since Raul Castro took over control from his brother Fidel are indeed amazing, although they are hardly reforms that allow for more freedom. And, as Senator Obama said in 2008, there is always the awful human rights record, with the detentions of people who, according to Cuban statute, are “dangerous.” “Dangerous” is defined by Cuban law as “demonstrated by conduct observed in manifest contradiction to the norms of socialist morality.” This law also applies to “anyone who, without falling under [the categories of] any of the states of dangerousness … by his or her ties or relations with persons who are potentially dangerous to society, to other individuals and to the social, economic and political order of the socialist state, may as a result develop a propensity” to become “dangerous.” These people are subject to reeducation in intensive-labor camps.
Six and a half years after the president said there would be no change to Cuban policy unless this was resolved, the plight of political prisoners in Cuba has indeed changed — for the worse. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates that the number of political prisoners more than quadrupled in the last four years, reaching over 8,400 in 2014, a number which many think is an undercount, due to house arrests and general harassment without confinement not being included in this number.
Already Raul Castro is making clear that he doesn’t intend to change anything about the way he rules his country. Back home, the policy shift is being discussed with politicians on both sides of the political aisle taking opposing sides. Senators Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rubio (R-Fla.) have been most vocal in opposing it, undoubtedly because the plight of those persecuted by the regime is personal to them, both being children of Cuban refugees. But some Republicans, such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Kan.), have joined the president in endorsing this change, arguing it isn’t appropriate to isolate just this one country, with all the other bad characters on the world stage not suffering the same consequences.
Leaving aside the contradiction in the president’s position, this argument is one that exposes a very facile way of looking at things. But not unlike the din of a muchzak (one who is already in possession of something, including a privilege; this usually refers to maintaining the status quo), the very same action taken is different if it is done to preserve a chazakah or to break one.
As such, the argument that we should either impose sanctions on other countries or lift them from Cuba as a means of achieving consistency is a hollow one. As Senator Menendez said, lifting the 50-year embargo on Cuba is a “reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve.” Imposing new sanctions, while it may in some cases be necessary, is a punishment, an action meant to teach another country a lesson. But after dealing with a country in a certain way for over 50 years, the U.S. certainly shouldn’t change the status quo in their favor because it’s a ‘good thing.’ We should make them earn it.