OPINION: Starwood Makes Hotel Deal With Repressive Cuban Military – Is This Rapprochement?

(Miami Herald/TNS) -

Mr. President, what’s wrong with this picture?

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide opens the first U.S.-operated hotel in Cuba in more than five decades. But it’s not a joint enterprise between an American firm and a Cuban entrepreneur, the kind that is supposed to benefit from a newly open and friendly U.S.-Cuba policy. The American hospitality giant is in business with the Cuban military, which owns the hotel.

Four Points Sheraton Havana brought to you, American traveler, by the people who repress Cubans.

If the intention of rapprochement is to create opportunities for ordinary Cubans to earn a living independently of their one-party, my-way-or-the-highway system of governance, this venture fails to pass the test.

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. Members of the military and their heirs already own the best paladares in Cuba, like the one where President Obama and his family dined. Now in this deal, they’re also the sole business partners of a top American hospitality travel company.

What I see is Americans trying to make a buck in cahoots with a repressive regime. Same old USA ambition, questionable ethics and double talk. As for engagement, this falls in the same realm as cruise-ship sailings and the imaginary theory that if enough Americans disembark at selected and controlled points and follow a highly structured agenda somehow Cuba is going to magically change for the better.

The State Department explains the Treasury Department approval of the Starwood deal as a need. Americans traveling to Cuba are complaining about the poor quality of government-run hotels. To keep them coming, allegedly to engage with ordinary Cubans, you’ve got to give them at least that Sheraton quality room and service they expect. The policy should be to let American travelers soak in all the Cuban reality, not shelter them from it.

Forgive me for being so blunt, but I — and scores of other Cuban-Americans who have supported the president’s policy of engagement with the goal of improving the lives of the Cuban people — could not care less how comfortable Americans feel when they travel to Cuba. If American need for comfort continues to oppress the underpaid Cuban worker, if American need for comfort keeps the repressive Cuban government as the Cubans’ one and only employer, if your dollars only extend the dictatorship, please sleep on the beach.

Or better yet, stay in a Cuban home.

“It’s getting harder and harder for me to support the initiatives in Cuba,” Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco says about the Starwood deal. “Are they blind? How will [the goal of bringing prosperity to the Cuban people] be realized if basically they are doing what others 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.?”

This from the poet full of hope who praised the new day of thawed relations at the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Yes, we’ve heard enough travel stories from Americans who learned nothing and only added Castroist propaganda to their views. We’ve dealt with enough indignities like Carnival’s willingness to impose Cuba’s repressive laws and discriminate against a class of Americans to be the first to get that cruise contract. We’ve learned about the Cuban government wholesaling visas, then turning away travelers at the airport they don’t find to their liking, no refunds.

The Cuban government continues to violate the same international human rights standards that it has cynically pledged to uphold in the presence of world leaders and forums like the United Nations.

The Ladies in White continue to be violently and routinely assaulted by the Castro regime’s goons, sometimes in plain view of visitors. They don’t even hide the abuse anymore. Last Sunday, the repressive forces arrested dozens of these peaceful women to keep them from attending religious services, and broke into their home headquarters and tried to steal their belongings.

Mr. President, what’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty. So far, the only entities on the winning side of U.S. engagement are the Cuban government, its allies and the select Americans who’ve been chosen to make a buck on Cubans’ backs just as Spaniards and Italians did when they flocked to the island’s “opening” to foreign investment in the 1990s. The people in charge are the same who turned the Habana Hilton in 1959 into their triumphant rebel headquarters and nationalized the tourism industry, making it theirs to profit from.

At what point does the outrage over the lack of basic human rights in Cuba reach a level high enough for the Obama administration to step back and re-assess a booming business relationship that has moved forward with unusual haste and without legitimate reform and opportunity for the Cuban people.

Mr. President, your administration’s generosity and openness toward the unchanging Cuban regime seem to be bottomless.

Time to slow down and take stock before handing over more and more dollars directly into the coffers of those in charge of repression.