No, Cuba is not getting better

Fidel Castro

One country we haven’t neglected on this site is Cuba. We’ve written about American TV reporter Lisa Howard’s romance with Fidel Castro, about Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s plans to make a movie about their liaison, about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s affection for Fidel Castro, about a celebration of Che Guevara in Norwegian Air’s inflight magazine, about a big, splashy fashion show held by Karl Lagerfeld in Havana, about a movie about Hemingway that whitewashed Cuban Communism, about a USA Today whitewash of Cuban Communism, about an Agence France Press whitewash of Cuban Communism, about a Time Magazine whitewash of Cuban Communism…and so on.

Obama in Havana

If we’re particularly attentive to Cuba, it’s partly because it’s so close to the U.S. and partly because its Communist regime has long been an object of affection for many stateside useful stooges. Many people on the left who would readily acknowledge that the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were unworthy of admiration nonetheless had a soft spot for Castro and his cronies. These same people warmed to one of the major initiatives of Barack Obama’s presidency, the opening to Cuba, which they presented as evidence that the island nation was transitioning, slowly but surely, to something resembling democracy.

Jose Marti International Airport in Havana

Obama may have reneged on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but he made a great show of opening the first U.S. Embassy in Havana since the Cuban Revolution. He authorized the resumption of commercial air flights, holiday cruises, and mail service between the U.S. and Cuba. He allowed the Cuban government to open bank accounts in the U.S. and removed it from the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. And in March 2016 he made a high-profile visit to the island.

U.S. Embassy in Havana

At first Obama had said he would make such a visit only if there were real signs that Cubans were being given more freedom. But he ended up going even though such indicators as the number of arrests of political dissidents turned out to be on the rise. A Boston Globe headline in February 2016 read “Obama Breaks Pledge – Will Visit Cuba Despite Worsening Human Rights.” His Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, even went so far as to dispel suggestions that Obama was out to encourage an end to, or softening of, Cuban Communism: if past U.S. policies had sent the message “that the United States was seeking to pursue regime change” on the island, said Rhodes, “Obama will make clear that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change.” Well, full points for honesty, if for nothing else.

Ben Rhodes

In point of fact, Obama’s Cuba policy gave a great deal to the Cuban regime and asked virtually nothing of it. U.S. officials admitted that the thinking behind Obama’s one-way generosity was that it would somehow encourage reforms – an assumption that was, at best, remarkably naïve and ill-informed. Among the critics of Obama’s new approach was Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who in a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate said that the sight of the U.S. President “laughing and shaking hands with the only dictatorship in the western Hemisphere” made him think of Cuban dissident “Berta Soler of the Ladies in White and her fellow human rights and democracy advocates.”

Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams, who has held major diplomatic posts under several presidents, agreed with Menendez, writing that Obama’s visit to Cuba “weakens the chances for freedom in Cuba because it is organized around encouraging the current regime rather than pressuring it for change.” Abrams added: “There is no evidence that the president will meet with the key–and incredibly courageous–dissidents who struggle at enormous sacrifice for freedom in Cuba. There is no evidence he even comprehends that most of the economic benefits of his opening to Cuba are accruing to the regime and the armed forces.”

Miguel Diaz-Canel

President Trump reversed many of Obama’s Cuba policies – and was criticized severely for it by those who shared Obama’s view that the way to make dictators nice is to make nice with dictators. Unfortunately, many blinkered folks in the U.S. and elsewhere actually believe that Cuba is undergoing serious reforms. As evidence of this proposition, they point to the selection of a new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in April of last year. The fact that Díaz-Canel is not a member of the Castro family is cited as a sign of hope – although the fact is that Raul Castro remains head of the Communist Party and thus the nation’s de facto leader.

Diaz-Canel with Maduro

In reality Díaz-Canel’s ascent to the presidency means nothing. The first foreign leader he met with after his inauguration was Nicolás Maduro. On February 4 the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (COHR) reported that at least 179 arbitrary detentions had taken place in Cuba during the month of January. While the already horrible economic situation in Cuba is deteriorating, oppression is intensifying. A new Constitution – which is presented by the government as some kind of advance over its predecessor but which makes only cosmetic alterations while reaffirming the Communist system of government – has been a focus of protest, and the COHR expressed concern in its report “about the increasing aggressiveness of the police against activists who peacefully demonstrate NO to the Constitution” and about the more general effort to “crush any dissent surrounding the new Constitution.”

More dire news arrived on February 10. Cuban activists announced on social media that Claudio Fuentes Madan, a photographer and campaigner for freedom in Cuba, had been missing for two days. One report stated that he had been arrested. Also missing was Antonio G. Rodiles, founder of a dissident think tank. So much for the callow belief on the part of Obama & co. that their Cuban counterparts were committed to gradual democratization.

Cubans vs. Obama

Since President Barack Obama announced the normalization of relations with the Communist government of Cuba, many conservative critics of the administration have attacked him severely.

Official Portrait
Marco Rubio

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, wondered “what, if anything, has been achieved…in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed: “The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship…As I’ve said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”

(FILES) In this 04 September1999 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro discusses his request to the president of the International Olympic Committee in Havana for an investigation into the treatment of certain Cuban atheletes. Castro said the communist nation is not afraid of dialogue with the United States -- and not interested in continued confrontation with its powerful neighbor. The comments came as a group of US lawmakers visited Cuba this weekend to try to end nearly half a century of mutual distrust and amid reports that President Barack Obama was planning to ease economic sanctions on the island, including travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans. "We're not afraid to talk with the United States. We also don't need confrontation to exist, like some fools like to think," Castro, 82, said in an article on the Cubadebate website on April 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE /FILES (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images) Original Filename: Was672139.jpg
Fidel Castro

Now their voices have been joined by those of pro-democracy activists in Cuba itself, at leat 90 of whom were arrested at an August 9 protest against the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. (One estimate puts the number at 118.) Several of the activists who took part in the protest were wearing masks of Obama – not because they support the American president, but, on the contrary, because they feel that Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba has led to an intensified crackdown on domestic critics of the Castro regime.

moya
Angel Moya Acosta

“It’s his [Obama’s] fault, what is happening,” charged Angel Moya Acosta, a prominent activist and former political prisoner who is the husband of Berta Soler, head of the anti-Castro group Ladies in White. Thanks to Obama’s action, claimed Moya, the Castro government “has grown even bolder….That’s why we have this mask on. Because it’s his fault.”

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 11: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the Iran Deal on August 11, 2015 in New York City. The U.S. Congress has until September 17 to approve a bill either supporting or rejecting the deal. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
John Kerry

A spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to open the embassy in Havana tomorrow (Friday the 14th), deplored the arrests but, when asked if Kerry planned to meet with dissidents during his visit to Cuba, fumfered unimpressively: “I don’t have anything specific with his — on his schedule Friday when he goes down to Havana. We’ll — we’ll — as we get closer to Friday, we’ll be able to give you more details about — about does it.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported – surprise! – that Cuban dissidents would not be invited to “Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, vividly illustrating how U.S. policy is shifting focus from the island’s opposition to its single-party government.” Kerry, added the AP, “intends to meet more quietly with prominent activists later in the day.” Key word: quietly. Arrange a meeting (in hopes, presumably, of muting their anti-Obama rhetoric), but don’t do anything that might win them Western media attention or help their cause.

Mind you, we’re not calling President Obama a useful stooge. But those pro-democracy activists in Cuba were certainly calling him precisely that.