President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Cuba next month, the first incumbent in the White House to do so in almost 90 years, is unquestionably an historic one. However, the question that many are asking is whether it will go down in the history books as a breakthrough to freedom, or a miscalculation that only prolonged the oppression of the Cuban people.
Few would quarrel with the stated purpose of the mission: “to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people,” as the president put it. But will it?
For half a century, while the Cuban people have groaned under the communist tyranny of the Castros, we have wanted nothing other than to improve their lives. But given the intransigence of the Castro regime, U.S. policy makers believed they had no choice but to isolate it economically and diplomatically, and so wear down the tyrants until they would be willing to trade their stranglehold on the citizenry for the benefits of recognition.
In 2014, Washington perceived that the time had finally come, that Havana was ready to make changes significant enough to justify a relaxation of restrictions on American interaction with the island.
Indeed, there have been some modest changes for the better: The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross has been granted access to the country, and cooperation agreements have been made between the U.S. and Cuba on environment, law enforcement dialogue and civil aviation. The American flag now flies at the embassy in Havana.
But in the most important area of all — that of human rights — virtually nothing.
The president himself acknowledged that the sought-after progress has not been forthcoming. He has pledged to “speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights.”
This appears to suit the Cuban regime just fine. Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said they are willing to discuss the American concerns.
“Cuba is open to speak to the U.S. government about any topic, including human rights,” Vidal told reporters.
She also noted Havana’s concerns, namely the return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuban sovereignty and the lifting of the embargo. Both of which must happen, they insist, before relations can be normalized.
Clearly, the Cubans are not about to relinquish their demands, as much as they desire normalization. The Americans are taking a different approach.
The inscrutable negotiating tactics of the Obama administration are once again on display. As in the talks leading to the nuclear deal with Iran, the administration made concessions while receiving little or nothing in return.
In December, there was tougher talk. National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes set forth what needed to happen in Cuba before the president would go there, including expanded access to the outside world and increased respect for human rights.
These good things have basically not happened. Yet the president is going there anyway.
True, Washington has frequently criticized Cuba’s human rights record since the reconciliation began in 2014, but the presidential visit comes even without any progress, an unmistakable sign that the Cubans are treating it for what it evidently is: mere rhetoric that can safely be ignored.
Who can blame them? Why give something to get something, when you can get that something for nothing?
Critics of the Obama trip argue that it will accomplish precisely the opposite of its stated purpose: instead of the intended message of hope, a message of despair.
“It is absolutely shameful that Obama is rewarding the Castros with a visit to Cuba by a sitting American president since their reign of terror began,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida.
“For more than 50 years Cubans have been fleeing the Castro regime, yet the country which grants them refuge, the United States, has now decided to quite literally embrace their oppressors.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has praised the U.S.-Cuban engagement, calling rapprochement a threat to Castro’s rule. Bernie Sanders called the planned visit “a major step forward.”
But not all Democrats are backing Obama on this. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), for one, tore into the leader of his party. “It is totally unacceptable that the president of the United States would reward a dictator regime with a historic visit when human rights violations endure and democracy continues to be shunned,” he said.
We cannot help but view the trip with deep misgivings. But there still remains the possibility that behind the scenes a deal is in the works, and that Obama will return with a commitment to substantial changes in Cuba’s human rights policy.
Inevitably, freedom will come to Cuba. We only hope it will come sooner rather than later, and that the presidential visit hastens the arrival of freedom rather than delays it.