President Donald Trump’s latest executive order — to roll back some of former President Barack Obama’s normalization with Cuba — has, like previous executive orders, drawn praise from his supporters and opposition from his critics. In the contemporary United States, even the matter of denouncing and punishing a dictatorial regime is entangled in partisan politics.
The question of the right policy toward Cuba is not a simple one given to easy solutions, and the president’s announcement a few days ago in Miami reflected that reality. It was by no means a sweeping cancelation of the Obama policy. The process of dialogue with Cuba over freedom and human rights has not been shut down. The U.S. embassy in Havana will remain open, and commercial flights and cruise ships will still be allowed. Business transactions between Americans and Cubans may continue to flourish.
What does stand to be changed (the order does not take effect for 90 days) is the one-sidedness of the existing deal, which proffers lucrative tourist and business ties for vague, phony and unenforceable promises of liberalization. The era of unconditional love for this brutal totalitarian regime is over.
As it was put in a White House memo, “any further improvements in the United States-Cuba relationship will depend entirely on the Cuban government’s willingness to improve the lives of the Cuban people.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration will begin strictly enforcing the exemptions that allow travel between the U.S. and Cuba and prohibit commerce with Cuban businesses owned by the military and intelligence services. That is a key point. The new policy does not punish the Cuban people; it punishes, if that is the correct term, the Cuban military and secret police. Americans will be prohibited from doing business with the entities owned by them. This prohibition recognizes that it makes no sense to rail at the oppressiveness of the Castro regime while at the same time enriching the instruments and henchmen of that regime.
In other words, the bonanza for Raul Castro and his fellow gangsters is over. But the door is not closed; if they can bring themselves to genuine reforms, normalization is still a possibility. It is likely to occur sooner or later; exactly when is up to Cuba.
Nor is the Trump doctrine the crass undoing of an enlightened approach which promoted freedom and humane governance on the island, as many liberal critics would have it. In fact, the Obama administration’s bid to loosen the dictators’ cruel grip through open exchange of goods and people has failed, shown to be naïve at best.
Two years after Obama sat next to Raul Castro enjoying a baseball game in Havana, conditions have not improved for the Cuban people. On the contrary. Reports on the government’s behavior indicate that repression is alive and well. During the first six months of 2016, there were on average 1,095 short-term political detentions, according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. That compares with 718 on average in 2015.
Why, then, the outcry against President Trump’s reasonable revision of a failed policy?
Well, one of the strongest arguments in favor of the new Cuba policy is that the dictatorial regime in Havana, along with its longtime friend and ally in Moscow, are loudly against it.
Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that “anti-Cuban” actions and “Cold War rhetoric” coming out of Washington were regrettable. Moscow reaffirmed its solidarity with Havana.
Given Moscow’s track record of propping up the communist revolution in Cuba and fomenting tensions between Cuba and the U.S., as well as Putin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 elections, any comments from that quarter about the administration’s decision deserves to be taken for what it’s worth — nothing.
As for the Castro regime’s complaint about “hostile rhetoric,” well, they have a point, sort of.
President Trump’s accusations could be fairly characterized as “hostile”:
“The Castro regime has shipped arms to North Korea and fueled chaos in Venezuela. While imprisoning innocents, it has harbored cop killers, hijackers and terrorists. It has supported human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation all around the globe,” Mr. Trump said.
But the hostility is directed not at Cuba or Cubans; it is hostility toward the gang of criminals responsible for these execrable acts. They deserve our hostility.
The Castro retort cited human rights abuses in America. “We have deep concerns by the respect and the guaranties of the human rights in that country, where there is a large number of cases of murder, brutality and police abuse, particularly against the African Americans; the right to live is violated as a result of deaths by firearms,” their statement reads.
Yes, America, like all countries of the world, has problems. Serious problems. It always has had such problems. But the crucial difference between America and the Castro gang is that the American system allows freedom of speech, religion and the ballot, which enable people to address those problems and change the system, which has often happened. The fact that we have not solved all the problems and that utopia has not been achieved is not an argument for Castroism, where they jail dissidents and torture them; where “murder, brutality and police abuse” is not the center of a public furor but the norms of a totalitarian system.