Historic Breakthrough or Photo-Op for Dictators?

The question that hovers over President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba is a question of timing: not whether he should go there, but whether he should be going there at this time.

Obama himself framed the issue when he said two months ago that he would only go to Cuba “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans. … If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there.”

Obviously, the president has decided that we’ve seen “some progress” — enough to justify the visit so that it should be an incentive to further progress, and not a reward for recalcitrance.

The slight loosening up of the Castro regime — mostly economic, not political — evidently meets Obama’s loose criterion of “some progress.”

Since the announcement in December 2014 of a policy aimed at normalizing relations, the United States eased travel and commercial restrictions vis-à-vis Cuba, while Havana permitted Cubans, within certain limitations, to pursue private business ventures, sell homes and cars to each other and travel abroad.

Last Wednesday, the president sent a letter on the first direct mail flight from the U.S. to Cuba since the revolution. On Sunday, U.S. hotel company Starwood became the first American business to reach a deal with the Cuban authorities since 1959.

The normalization policy has considerable popular support. Recent surveys of Cuban Americans show that a slight majority support the administration’s efforts to normalize relations between the two countries. About 75 percent of Americans generally favor the move to normalization.

The Cuba trip is being described everywhere in the media as “historic.” While it is not on the scale of President Nixon’s trips to China and Russia, it will certainly deserve a place in the history books, and as such invites comparison to those events.

Then too, a sitting president ventured abroad to engage totalitarian regimes with the hope of launching a new, better era in foreign relations. And then too, there were questions raised about the wisdom of doing so when the likes of Mao and Brezhnev were still brutally oppressing their peoples. While the Soviet Union has since disappeared, the People’s Republic of China and the issue of political freedom there have not.

Nixon’s China trip was so elaborately staged that Americans following it avidly in the media would never know that the Chinese hosts (including the charming Chou En-lai) were presiding at that time over the Cultural Revolution, in which an estimated 1.5 million people were killed, and millions of others were imprisoned, tortured and publicly humiliated.

Cuba is a different story. Neither the crimes of its rulers nor the skills of its propagandists can match the Chinese or the Russians.

A BBC correspondent in Havana this week observed: “Of course for security reasons, no one is saying precisely where the president will go when he’s here, but here’s my tip as a highly trained investigative reporter. Follow the smell of fresh paint, and roads where the potholes have been filled in. That’s where the president is going to be.”

The paint-overs and the potholes in the Castro regime are much more easily spotted, not so expertly filled in.

On the eve of Obama’s arrival, protesters calling for the release of political prisoners were arrested in Havana, making international headlines.

Critics have been bitter in their condemnation.

“President Obama promised to extend a hand to dictators if they were willing to un-clench their fists — that has not happened in Cuba,” said Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, referring to reports of hundreds of political prisoners who are subject to gross human rights violations.

GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant who fled the communist regime, blasted Obama for forgetting about the “political prisoners languishing in dungeons across the island.”

Holding Obama to his own stated condition of “progress” for such a visit, Cruz declared: “I have news, Mr. President: No progress has taken place. Cuba is going backward.”

The administration will have to show that the visit was indeed justified at this juncture, and was not just an historical photo-op that will benefit the dictators more than the people. Meeting with a group of dissidents alone will not be enough. Such a meeting must yield positive change.

“We want to see results” from the U.S. opening, said José Daniel Ferrer, head of Cuba’s largest dissident organization, the Cuban Patriotic Union.

But he was hopeful that results will come, sooner or later. “It’s already easier to criticize Raúl [Castro] than it was Fidel,” Ferrer said of the current Castro president, and his brother and predecessor. “The next will be easier still.” Raúl Castro has said he will step down in 2018.

We hope that the trend is indeed toward freedom, and that the presidential visit will accelerate that trend, not slow it down.