National Security & Defense

Obama Acts on Cuba

President Obama announces his new Cuba policy. (Pool/Getty Images)

Here are four names, long forgotten, that should be noted today: Armando Alejandre, Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, and Mario de la Peña. They were three U.S. citizens and one permanent resident. They were pilots with Brothers to the Rescue, the outfit that looks for Cuban refugees, as they are stranded or desperate on the sea.

On February 24, 1996, the four pilots were shot out of the sky by the Cuban dictatorship’s forces. The planes were in international airspace at the time. The Castro government killed the men simply because they were trying to help innocent Cubans.

The Castros had the help of a spy network in the United States. U.S. authorities apprehended five of them, who were then given the full benefit of our justice system (including appeal after appeal). Eventually, they were convicted of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder.

These men, known as “The Cuban Five,” were long a cause célèbre on the left. “Free the Cuban Five!” signs were seen all over the United States and Europe, especially Europe. In October 2011, the first of them was released, having served out his term. He made a taunting statement: “We still have four brothers whom we have to rescue.” “Brothers to the Rescue” — get it?

A second Cuban spy finished his term in February 2014. So that left a Cuban Three.

For years now, the Obama administration has sworn that it would never swap these Cuban spies for Alan Gross, the American aid worker who was taken hostage by the Cuban dictatorship in December 2009. The implied moral equivalence would be obnoxious, Obama officials said. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated this last year.

That is what the administration has now done, however: swap the Cuban spies for Gross. But we got more: a spy of our own, a Cuban national who, unlike the Castros’ spies, worked on the side of democracy and freedom.

Moreover, the Cuban dictatorship has apparently released, or agreed to release, 53 of its political prisoners. This might startle or embarrass certain people on the left, who have long denied that the Castros have political prisoners at all. Earlier this year, Jorge Dominguez, the famed Harvard professor, denied on CNN that the Castros had any political prisoners.

There are more where those 53 came from, too.

If President Obama had done nothing more than swap the Cuban spies for Gross and our own agent, we could have lived with that. Indeed, we might have defended it. But Obama has taken the momentous step of normalizing relations with the Castros’ Cuba. Thus has the Left achieved a dream it started dreaming on January 1, 1959, the first day of the dictatorship.

The previous administration, that of George W. Bush, offered a program of carrots and sticks: relaxation of American policy in exchange for Cuban liberalization. Obama has acted unilaterally, giving the Cuban dictatorship, not just relaxation, but the ultimate: namely, full diplomatic relations.

And this is a dictatorship, mind you, that is still murdering its democratic opponents. Two years ago, the democracy leader Oswaldo Payá was almost certainly killed by the regime (in one of those car accidents that are not really accidents). (Stalin used to order these, too.)

Obama, like everyone else in his camp, likes to say that longstanding American policy on Cuba has not “worked.” The word “worked” is interesting. In 2003, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger asked a dissident, René Montes de Oca, “What do you say to those Americans who say that our policy hasn’t ‘worked’? The Communist regime is still standing.” Montes answered, “At least you haven’t helped them,” unlike a good many European countries, for example.

The new American policy will mean dollars to the regime (as opposed to Cubans themselves). The Castro dictatorship is an amazingly lucky dictatorship. When its sponsor, the Soviet Union, folded in 1991, the EU rushed in to pick up the slack. In the last 15 years, the dictatorship has been propped up by chavista Venezuela, with its massive oil wealth.

Now, however, Venezuela is on the verge of political and economic collapse. And here we come, favoring the Cuban regime with normalization, plus associated goodies.

Moreover, the administration is poised to strike Cuba from the State Department’s list of terror sponsors. If Cuba is removed — when it is removed — let it be because the Castros are no longer sponsoring terror, not because Obama is trying to appease. The Castros’ close relations with North Korea do not suggest reform in the global arena.

The kidnapping of Alan Gross in December 2009 turned out to be a very good move for the Cuban regime. Like any good hostage-taker, the Castros used him as leverage, and got more out of him probably than they ever dreamed: full-scale relations with the U.S. Obama, however, would likely have granted these relations anyway. The release of Gross serves as a fig leaf.

Here is a worry: Will other rogue regimes draw a lesson from this experience? Will they conclude that, if they take Americans hostage, they can get what they want out of Washington? Certainly out of Obama?

The Cuban government is not legitimate, and never has been. It is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag, an archipelago of prisons into which democrats and dissidents are thrown. We hope that the new American policy — Obama’s policy — does not benefit the Cuban dictatorship and harm Cuban democrats. We fear that yesterday was a good day for the Castros and a bad day for the Cuban people, and for American foreign policy.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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