So President Obama will travel to Cuba next month. This was inevitable, after his opening to the regime in December 2014. We had just had our midterm elections, remember. Obama had only two years left to go in his presidency.
Do you recall the joke he made a few months later? It was pretty funny, actually, and quite revealing. “After the midterm elections,” he said, “my advisers asked me, ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have something that rhymes with “bucket list.”’”
After it was announced that Obama would go to Cuba, I was of two minds. Part of me wanted to yawn: “The damage was already done, in December 2014. What difference does a trip make? This is just Obama being Obama, like a fish swimming. Ho-hum. Besides, I’ve already said all I can possibly say on Obama, the American Left, and the Castro dictatorship.”
But part of me thought I should maybe write a column. Back to the salt mines, once more. So here I am.
The guts of what I wish to say has already been said in National Review’s editorial. Moreover, I talked about Obama and Cuba with Mona Charen in a podcast. Moreover, I talked to Otto Reich, the Cuban-born foreign-policy expert, in a separate podcast.
But I’m back for more, if you can stand it.
‐Why did Obama offer his opening to the Castros two years ago? Because he wanted to, that’s why. That is the bottom line, I believe. It was on his list: his rhymes-with-bucket list.
Since the ’60s, the Castros had dreamed of a rapprochement with the United States — on their terms. For just as long, the American Left had dreamed of the same thing. And now there was a president of the Left who could do it.
The Castros interpret Obama’s opening, and his trip, as a great victory: in essence, the capitulation of the United States, the yanqui behemoth to the north.
Obama’s opening was unnecessary, and it certainly wasn’t urgent. It was not in the American interest, as far as I can tell. I don’t think interest had anything to do with it. This was a personal and ideological choice — Obama’s. And the American people elected him twice, so they (we) are also responsible.
Chances are, Obama wanted to stick his thumb in the eye of Miami and the anti-Communists. He has. How proud they must be, the Obamites.
‐Once upon a time, there was linkage. We had it with the Soviet Union, we had it with its clients, including Cuba. The Bush 43 administration used to speak of “carrots and sticks.”
The deal was, we would bend toward the Castros if they bent on their own island: that is, if they liberalized. The Castros typically opted not to liberalize.
Then came Obama: who gave them what they wanted. For free. He did not need liberalization. He did not need a Cuban glasnost or perestroika. He was apparently bound and determined to do it, for it was on his “list” (and that of the American Left in general).
‐What has happened on the island since December ’14, since Obama’s opening? Well, the dictatorship has cracked down on democrats and dissidents all the harder. Why shouldn’t they? Who’s watching? Who cares?
“What difference at this point does it make?” as a former secretary of state of ours said, in a different context.
Last year, I met with Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, the Cuban human-rights group. I quoted to her something that Oscar Biscet had said, after Obama announced his opening: “I feel as though I have been abandoned on the battlefield.”
A word about Biscet: He is a heroic democracy leader. I talked with him, and wrote a profile of him, in 2011. For “Voice of the Resistance,” go here.
Anyway, this is what Berta Soler said to me: “The European Union, the USA, Pope Francis — they have turned their backs on us.” Obama promised that his new policy would empower civil society in Cuba. “But we are seeing that what he has done is give a green light to the Cuban government to crush civil society.”
The Ladies in White, among others, have the broken bones to prove it.
‐Here’s what Obama and the rest of them say — not just the Left, but some libertarians and scattered others: “It hasn’t worked! What you guys have done for the last umpteen decades hasn’t worked! Time for a new approach, time for an opening.”
Okay. But what do they mean by “worked”? Do they meant that Washington has not succeeded in toppling the Castro dictatorship? True. But I’ll tell you what Cuban democrats and dissidents, including ex-political prisoners, have often told me: “At least you haven’t helped them. The Russians, the West Europeans, the Canadians, the Venezuelans — they have all helped the Castros. They step in just when the Castros need them. But you, you have not. And God bless you for it.”
I’ll take that.
Incidentally, I talked to a current political prisoner once, who told me just that. He was on the lam at the time of our phone call. (His name was René Montes de Oca.)
“What’s the harm,” you may ask, “in traveling to Cuba, and sipping mojitos on the beach, and looking at the old American cars, and sampling Havana’s nightlife?”
Let me pause to say that “nightlife” is sometimes a euphemism for underage prostitution. Underage prostitution, in fact, is one of the draws of the Hollywood types who have always gone to Cuba.
Here’s the thing: Tourism dollars, or euros or whatever they are, go straight into the pockets of the regime. They are the oxygen that the Castros and the Communist party need to keep their one-party dictatorship going. So, sip all the mojitos you want. But be under no illusion.
‐It was clear from the earliest days of the Obama administration that this administration would not “do” human rights. On a trip to East Asia, the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, described our new relationship with China. Human rights would not be allowed to “interfere,” she said, with the really important issues: such as “the global climate-change crisis.”
Jump to today. David Thorne is a senior adviser to the current secretary of state, John Kerry. A few months ago, he spoke of our new relationship with Cuba: “As in other parts of the world, we are really trying to also say, Let’s find out how we can work together and not always say that human rights are the first things that we have to fix before anything else.”
Work together with the Castro dictatorship, this destroyer of rights and lives? This friend of Kim Jong-un and other such beauties? Why? What’s the American interest?
‐Hard as it may be to believe, Ronald Reagan was once president. He made Armando Valladares his ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Valladares, you recall, was the heroic writer who spent 22 years in the Cuban gulag. He wrote a memoir called “Against All Hope.” He was known as “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn.”
And Reagan made him our ambassador for human rights. That was so Reagan.
Today, FYI, the Castro dictatorship sits on the U.N.’s human-rights panel. Is the Obama administration bothered?
In 2007, George W. Bush was president. He gave Oscar Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in absentia — for Biscet was in prison at the time. That was so like Bush. And his act thrilled and emboldened the Cuban democracy movement.
(Biscet, Soler, many other democracy leaders — they are Afro-Cuban, by the way, for those who care about race. Which the Left normally does, intensely. But when it comes to the Castros and Cuba, all bets are off. Affection resides with the regime.)
Barack Obama is no Reagan or W. — on that, both Left and Right can readily agree. During the Reagan years, Obama went to Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School. Whom did his teachers and classmates admire more? Fidel Castro or Reagan? The Cuban dictatorship or the Republican party?
Was Obama part of the consensus? As we speak now, in 2016, where’s his head at (as we might have said in the old days)?
‐I will quote from NR’s editorial, mentioned above:
A big question about the president’s upcoming trip is whether he will meet with the dictator emeritus, Fidel. Fidel Castro is a hero to leftists all over the world. A rock star. Meeting with him, for the Left, is like meeting with Elvis. Che Guevara would be possibly better, but he is no longer available.
The president of France, François Hollande, has been tickled pink to meet even with Raúl. Earlier this month, he greeted Raúl with a hug in Paris. “Vive Cuba!” said Hollande. Did he mean the island and nation and people? Or the Castro dictatorship? One cannot confidently say the former.
Years ago, in Cuba, Jesse Jackson said, “Viva Castro! Viva Che Guevara!” Later, Bill Buckley asked him on television, “By wishing Castro and Guevara long lives, were you wishing short lives to their prisoners?”
Obama has already met with Raúl — in Panama. He seemed very comfortable with the Cuban dictator. More than with, say, the Israeli prime minister.
‐No question, Obama has an opportunity to do good in Cuba. He has leeway: The Castros need him more than he needs the Castros. (He doesn’t need them at all. He just wants them, or so it seems.)
He could insist on meeting with democrats and dissidents. If he could not actually visit political prisoners, he could highlight their cases. He could throw a spotlight on them, which is what they crave.
Last September, Pope Francis had the opportunity to do much good. But he snubbed the democracy movement. People were arrested right in front of him, and he seemed oblivious. He met with Fidel Castro, clasping his hand, beaming at him with delight.
All of this demoralized the democracy movement terribly.
Barack Obama probably can’t get away with a Francis-style performance. He probably can’t snub the democracy movement altogether, or beam at Fidel. At a minimum, he must acknowledge the democrats. But will he do more than the minimum? More than pay lip service?
‐For all these decades, American leftists have trooped down to Havana, to pay tribute to the Castros — Robert Redford, Ed Asner, all of them. Carole King crooned to Fidel her hit song, “You’ve Got a Friend.” He certainly does, many of them.
‐There are Americans, or former Americans, who have long lived on the island. They are fugitives from American justice. They are alumni of the “romantic” period of American violent radicalism.
One of them is Assata Shakur, née JoAnne Chesimard, who killed a policeman in New Jersey — his name was Werner Foerster. Chesimard was imprisoned but escaped, making her way down to Cuba and the Castros.
She is a heroine on our left. A rapper, Common, wrote “A Song for Assata”: a hymn of love and praise. In 2011, he was invited to the White House. Police groups protested mightily. Obama made sure to give the rapper a big hug.
We can assume that Obama will not be dining with Assata Shakur or singing “You’ve Got a Friend” to Castro — either of them. But what will his posture be, morally?
‐I will again quote from the NR editorial:
Between Democrats and Republicans, there are many and sharp differences, including on Communism. Consider that a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And that the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, honeymooned in Cuba.
Among the Republican candidates for president are two Cuban Americans, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The latter has made an interesting proposal: to rename the street in front of the Castros’ new embassy in Washington, D.C., after Oswaldo Payá — who was a Cuban democracy leader killed in 2012, almost certainly by the regime.
Americans elected Barack Obama twice (as I have mentioned). They can have a different kind of president — a different kind of America — if they want to.
‐Back to the personal — to me, that is. I no longer have quite the strength to be outraged at Obama. I cannot be disappointed in him. He is what he is, he does what he does. Going to Cuba to schmooze with the Castros, at least one of them? That’s how he rolls. That’s where his head and heart are, I think.
He is crossing the items off his rhymes-with-bucket list. He will be in Tehran soon. Iranians, both democratic and tyrannical, can look at his performance in Cuba, to know how his performance in their country will go.
It could be, Obama will rise to the occasion in Cuba. And I will be the first to cheer and to say how wrong I was, for my deep and dark doubts.