Waiting for Obama in Havana

Foreign Policy

By José R. Cárdenas


It comes as no surprise that preparations for President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba later this month have not gone smoothly. First, Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to cancel his own trip prior to the President’s, due to the regime’s intransigence over his meeting with dissidents and human rights activists. Then, The New York Times reported that the White House found itself in a similar situation, haggling with Cuban officials over which members of those communities Obama would meet, and under what circumstances.

Last week, the Castro regime mouthpiece Granma published a stiff editorial saying that, Obama visit or no, the regime has no intention of reforming its repressive system.

How could it be otherwise?

We are not talking about a trip to a country where a suddenly enlightened dictatorship decided it’s time to join the 21st century, and now wants U.S. assistance and capital to transform its economy and open up its political system. Instead, these are cunning and ruthless revolutionaries who are determined to reap all the benefits of new U.S. revenue streams while walling off any repercussions that would threaten its total control.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been a critic of Obama’s Cuba policy because it is based on several false assumptions: First, that the reason the Castro regime represses the Cuban people is because of U.S. policy, and that by reversing that policy we can improve human rights by removing the “justification” for those abuses. Second, that the Castro regime actually fears rapprochement with the United States — thus, pushing forward will somehow trick the regime into making mistakes about freedom for the Cuban people. And third, that increased U.S. trade and travel to Cuba will, over time, create inexorable pressures for political reforms.

The problem is that the Castro regime understands this game far better than anyone in the White House. The regime can weather any U.S. approach because its will to survive is greater than any desire of Washington to kill it with kindness. This is a regime that doesn’t want too much U.S. trade and travel, nor do they want too little. They want just enough to head off any social pressures resulting from the penury they have inflicted on the Cuban people for more than five decades.

Moreover, to believe the Castro regime would put its power at risk in exchange for a mess of beads and trinkets from the United States is to fundamentally misunderstand its nature.

Still, I am not ready to write off the President’s trip as yet another example of the incredible shrinking U.S. presidency of the past seven years. In fact, I want to imagine a scenario where President Obama seizes the moment to make real history in Cuba, on par with Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenberg Gate where he audaciously dared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”

Meeting with Cuban dissidents and human rights activists is a starting point, but it is not enough — not enough for history or for the U.S. presidency. The administration has already fallen into the regime’s trap by haggling over the details of such a meeting. That is a regime tactic to occupy and exhaust their interlocutors so they will negotiate against themselves and ultimately be satisfied calling a closed-door meeting a “breakthrough.”

No, President Obama must challenge the regime in public and in full view of the Cuban people. He could do it on Cuban state television, since the regime will only allow him to speak before party hacks and the like, never before a large assembly of “non-approved” Cubans. (In 2002, former President Jimmy Carter was allowed to give a speech on Cuban television, but the regime played the Spanish translation over his remarks at the same volume, rendering his words basically unintelligible to the audience.)

President Obama, as a sitting president, has an even bigger opportunity. He can impart to the Cuban people the American creed that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, and that no government that does not enjoy the consent of the governed is legitimate. He can help to restore in them some semblance of confidence that they can and should determine their own future, and that legitimate governments don’t use force against their own citizens trying to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly.

We are long past the time of papal circumlocutions or fuzzy diplo-speak that fails to inspire the Cuban people to recover for themselves their individual dignity or empower them to seek changes in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. President Obama has the opportunity to create history in Cuba and establish a real legacy; here’s hoping, perhaps against hope, he lives up to the moment.


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During the last several decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in trying to help the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean deliver better lives for their citizens. This has meant helping them increase internal security by combating the illicit growing and trafficking in narcotics and the activities of terrorist groups, as well as helping them to shore up their democratic and free market institutions.

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