The American Left has loathed the embargo and overlooked all of Castro’s repressive actions since the 1960s. They have blamed the U.S.–Cuba deadlock entirely on the United States and have sought the end of the embargo whenever a Democrat was in the White House. Under Johnson, Carter, and Clinton they did not get their way; that had to await Obama.
When the Soviet Union fell, the Castro regime was in dire straits. It survived through sheer repression — until it was sustained by Venezuelan oil money sent by Hugo Chávez. Today Chávez is dead, oil is under $60 a barrel, and Venezuela is reeling. Who will bail Castro out this time? Now we have the answer: Barack Obama.
Put aside the prisoner exchange, which one can be for or against and still decry the rest of Obama’s moves today. It’s clear that Obama told the Cubans they had to let Alan Gross out before he could make the rest of his changes — and told them he would undertake those changes immediately. So the Castros not only get diplomatic recognition and a big financial lift — more trade, more tourism, more remittances to Cubans from family members in the U.S., and from which the regime can take a big cut — but they get it all for nothing. That is, the prisoner trade (whether smart or dumb) was a bargained-for exchange. They got three, we got two. All the rest in the Obama policy changes is simply a gift to the regime. The Castros made no promises at all to reduce oppression, allow freedom of speech or assembly, or make any political reforms or foreign-policy adjustments.
The Obama White House conducted these negotiations itself, with no meddling from the State Department. The centralization of all activity in the White House continues, and in this case the American negotiator was Ben Rhodes. Rhodes is a speechwriter with a graduate degree (M.F.A.) in creative writing, so one might wonder if he struck the hardest bargain possible. But of course those would not have been his instructions anyway: The president didn’t want a hard bargain. He wanted to destroy 50 years of American policy toward the Castro regime.
The White House does claim, now, that all this will benefit the people of Cuba. How? Well, other Latin governments opposed our Cuba policy but will now join us in pressing Cuba for human-rights improvements. This is obviously sheer nonsense. Does even Rhodes believe Rousseff in Brazil or Bachelet in Chile (much less the Bolivian or Venezuelan or Ecuadorian leftist strongmen) will now suddenly turn tough on Fidel and Raul? The White House also says economic progress in Cuba will lead to political progress. Really? Has it in other Communist countries such as China or Vietnam?
Why did the president act, if there will be no change in Cuban foreign or domestic policies? There is no good reason other than ideology. Jeane Kirkpatrick once called this the “blame America first” view. You see, we backed the dictator Batista in Cuba, we were mean to the young idealist Castro and drove him into the arms of the Russians, we imposed a stupid embargo, and now we must make it up to the Cubans and the world by correcting our decades of errors. Given our own sins, it would be wrong to make any demands of Fidel and Raul — relating to human rights in Cuba or Cuban activities throughout the hemisphere. If there is a better explanation of Obama’s moves, no one has yet produced it.
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.