National Security & Defense

One Year Later: Assessing President Obama’s Failed Cuba Strategy

Members of the Ladies in White group march in Havana, March 20, 2016. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
The president’s diplomatic rapprochement has not helped the struggling Cuban people.

One year ago this month, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Havana to celebrate the reopening of the U.S. embassy, 54 years after President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist regime.

During the last year, we have seen President Barack Obama, his administration, and its extended echo chamber work exhaustively to portray the president’s misguided Cuba policy as a success. But the realities on the ground paint a different picture. We saw President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro enjoy a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team with FARC terrorists in the stadium, host a jubilant joint press conference, and mingle with Nancy Pelosi, Patrick Leahy, and Charlie Rangel over a lavish state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution.

But today, despite the president’s promises to “engage and empower the Cuban people,” little has changed for those suffering under the Havana tyranny.

Dozens of protesters were arrested in Cuba just hours before President Obama’s arrival in Havana back in March. The Ladies in White, such as Berta Soler and Yaquelin Heredia Morales are still being harassed, beaten, and jailed. Sakharov Prize awardee Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas has been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks to shine a spotlight on Castro’s human-rights abuses on the island. The regime controls the media and the Internet remains highly censored with little access to divergent views. Last month, the Obama State Department even admitted the dictatorship has failed to live up to the promises it made to broaden Internet access. At a meeting of the Cuban Communist party in April, Raul Castro denied Cuba was moving toward capitalism and continued to deride free markets and private-property rights. Elections remain far from free and democratic.

In fact, prominent leaders of Cuba’s peaceful opposition believe President Obama’s concessions to the Castro regime have been counterproductive to the fight for freedom. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, also known as Antunez, and who spent 17 years in Castro’s gulags, has affirmed that “a vital segment of the Cuban Resistance” view the Obama administration’s policy of appeasement “as a betrayal of the aspiration to freedom of the Cuban people.”

Cuban pro-democracy advocate Antonio Rodiles, who has been arrested more than 50 times, believes repression by the dictatorship and its Communist apparatchiks is actually increasing. He recently said, “the regime is more legitimate after the change in relations with the U.S.,” adding, “Economic changes won’t bring political changes; now human rights and the promotion of democracy are not the priority of the discussion.”

Leaders of Cuba’s peaceful opposition believe President Obama’s concessions to the Castro regime have been counterproductive to the fight for freedom.

As we assess the results of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacy, it is clear that Cuba, like Iran in recent nuclear negotiations, has received far more concessions from the United States than what we achieved in return. That shouldn’t come as a surprise — at every turn, the Obama administration has put politics over sound policy, pursuing photo-ops instead of pragmatic and tangible objectives.

Ultimately, the real test of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime is not whether President Obama’s legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements, but whether improved relations between Havana and Washington advance the cause of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people. The ongoing detention of pro-democracy advocates and continued human-rights abuses suggest the administration’s policy has failed this test.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The Democracy movement on the island gulag is filled with tremendous young, freedom-loving leaders. The Communist dictatorship that has ruled Cuba is an unfortunate relic — led by dying tyrants, clinging to their last years in power, whose reign will come to an end eventually. The future of Cuba is clear. Freedom will ultimately prevail, and the U.S. can be an active participant in the region to accelerate democracy, but our current approach is flawed.

It will be incumbent on the next administration to work with Congress — not subvert it through the abuse of executive authority — to promote policies that will advance the cause of basic human rights for all in Cuba, including the release of political prisoners, fair and free elections, respect for the rule of law, the resolution of U.S. confiscated-property claims, and the embrace of a free-market economy.

Until these conditions exist, we should not reward the Castro dictatorship by ending the embargo. In fact, considerations should be given to strengthening it, an effort currently being led by Republicans and even some Democrats in the House of Representatives to empower the Cuban people.

Our aspiration should not merely be for improved relations with a violent, corrupt, murderous regime in Havana, but for a truly free and democratic Cuba, which we can help achieve through restored American leadership and a coherent, consistent foreign policy.

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