Barack Obama’s approach to tyrants might have been described as “tough love,” except that there was never anything tough about it. He attempted to make nice with the mullahs in Tehran, giving them crates of cash in exchange for unenforceable promises about their nuclear program. But it was in his own hemisphere that he made the most gratuitous concessions. In late 2014, the Obama administration normalized relations with Cuba and lifted travel and economic restrictions to the island, some of which had been in place since the Kennedy administration. In the spring of 2016, President Obama visited Cuba, where he took in a baseball game with Cuban “president” Raúl Castro.
The only thing missing from the grotesque spectacle was a mojito.
Cuba is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag, and has been since Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government in 1959. At his retirement in 2008, “El Jefe” was the longest-ruling non-royal head of state since 1900, at the top of a list that includes such names as Kim, Qaddafi, and Hoxha. Castro was no less brutal than any of them, but he managed, somehow, to be more popular. Among left-wing intellectuals in Europe and the United States, Castro was a sort of pope, and Havana a destination for pilgrimage. American leftists, including Bernie Sanders, continue to propound the supposed glories of Cuba’s health-care and education systems.
There was no pressing reason for President Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba — it was not necessary or even advisable — but the president suggested that comity between the U.S. and Cuba, and a heavier exchange of goods and people, would help to relax the regime’s grip. More than two years later, it is clear that this is not true. While Americans are enjoying Cuban rum and cigars, the regime has stepped up its repressive activities since the “thaw” was announced. During the first six months of 2016, there were on average 1,095 short-term political detentions, according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation; there were 718 on average in 2015.
Dissidents such as the Ladies in White have been increasingly targeted by the regime for persecution. Recently, authorities have been intimidating successful entrepreneurs; a restaurateur in Havana was arrested for nothing more than failing to bribe the appropriate officials. (The vice president of the island’s sham legislature recently declared that Cuba “will not allow the concentration of property and wealth.”)
On Friday, President Trump announced that he plans to roll back parts of his predecessor’s Cuba policy. At the center of the president’s plan is a prohibition on commerce with any businesses owned by Cuban military or intelligence services. That’s a significant change: Such enterprises account for more than half of the Cuban economy. Given that it is not always easy to know in which businesses the regime has an interest, the policy is likely to have a chilling effect on buyers and investors. Trump, who announced his policy with a speech in Miami, is exactly right about the economic effects of Barack Obama’s policies: “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime.” The administration is also ending individual people-to-people travel, which enabled Americans to skirt the continued statutory ban on Cuban tourism. Other regulations will be written and implemented over the coming months by the relevant departments.
The Trump administration has made an important reversal. The Castro dictatorship was not, never has been, and never will be America’s friend.
President Trump also took a rhetorically hard line toward the regime, calling out its human-rights abuses: “To the Cuban government, I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves to political and economic freedoms, return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard.” The last is a reference to Assata Shakur, who murdered a New Jersey State Police trooper in 1973; she has been shielded from extradition by the Castros since 1984 and is currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List. Donald Trump has hardly been a reliable defender of human rights, but these remarks are a very welcome change. Administration officials say that political reforms will be a prerequisite to future negotiations; we hope the administration stays true to that intention.
The president faces criticism from several sides: from the regime and its apologists, from opponents of the regime who nonetheless favor a thaw, and from opponents who think the president should have gone further. We’re in the last camp. There is more that the Trump administration can do, publicly and behind the scenes. The administration should think seriously about reinstating the wet-foot/dry-foot policy that protected Cuban refugees who made it to American shores. It should consider how to curtail Cuba’s continued willingness to support terror abroad, especially in North Korea. (The Obama administration removed Cuba’s deserved designation as a state sponsor of terror.) The administration should also rethink the unseemly latitude toward cruise lines, which enable Americans to gambol on Cuba’s shores while dissidents are beaten a few miles away.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration has made an important reversal. The Castro dictatorship was not, never has been, and never will be America’s friend, and it required a special species of naïveté to think that the overseers of tropical concentration camps would throw down their guns because Major League Baseball had arrived on the island. Barack Obama gave the regime an extraordinary gift, demanded nothing, and in doing so managed only to facilitate more brutal repression of Cuba’s embattled democrats. Donald Trump is charting a different course. It’s a better route to a true Cuba libre – not the Castro brothers’ mockery of one.