Obama in Cuba: Embracing the Oppressors

Looking the other way as dissidents are rounded up by the Castro brothers.

President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution on the second day of his three-day trip to Cuba and held what Obama called “frank” discussions with the Cuban dictator. Upon his arrival on Sunday, Obama declared that his visit was a “historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people.” Obama was accompanied by 40 members of Congress and a large delegation of administration officials and business leaders from the private sector. The president continued to remove restrictions getting in the way of freer trade and exchanges with Cuba, but is asking little in return.

Obama sounded almost like the Cuban guide who had led the “people-to-people” tour in which I participated last month. We too were to “engage directly with the Cuban people.” Just like Obama, some even posed for pictures in front of a giant sculpture of Ernesto Che Guevara in Havana’s Revolution Square. However, posing in front of the sculpture of a bloodthirsty killer, who once threatened to kill millions of Americans with nuclear armed missiles, sends far more of a troubling symbolic message when the president of the United States and leader of the free world does it than a group of ordinary American tourists. Obama should have declined the photo-op and stuck to pictures in front of memorials to Cuba’s 19th century poet and essayist, and patriotic hero, José Julián Martí.

Obama must have known before he landed on Cuban soil that 526 critics of the Castro regime had been detained during the first two weeks of March alone. There were dozens of arrests, just hours before he arrived, of members of the dissident group, Ladies in White, who march in protest every Sunday. When Obama was asked about this at a joint press conference following his meeting with President Castro, he avoided a direct answer. While President Obama is planning to meet with some dissidents, the Cuban regime has engaged in what one dissenter called “preventive repression, so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here.”

As for Castro, he appeared perplexed when questioned about political prisoners during the joint news conference. It was like the scene from the movie Casablanca, when Captain Renault, explaining his closing of Rick’s Café, exclaimed, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” as he was grabbing his winnings. Castro’s response to the question was “what political prisoners? Give me a list.” Obama looked on, showing not the slightest bit of emotion. 

President Obama did talk generally about the importance of human rights and said that he would continue to speak out in support of the “universal” rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. He said that he had “frank” discussions with Castro regarding human rights, but did not indicate any real progress on that front. In fact, in another of Obama’s displays of moral equivalence and apologies for alleged shortcomings of the United States, Obama said that he welcomed criticisms from Castro regarding areas where he thinks we are “falling short,” such as income inequality and racism. And Obama lauded the Cuban regime’s record on advancing the right of all Cubans to free health care and education, which he agreed were human rights.

The average Cuban, however, does not live in the style to which Cuban leaders have become accustomed. Even with a modest introduction of private enterprise under Raul Castro’s rule, obtaining high-end goods is more of an exercise of political access than free market economics. Internet access follows a similar pattern. Monthly ration coupons for food provide for a substandard level of nutrition. Basics like the availability of clean water for drinking is a luxury. And while racial segregation in employment that had prevailed in pre-revolutionary Cuba was largely ended, blacks in Cuba cannot organize to press for policies long existing in the United States to deal with the remnants of segregation, such as affirmative action. 

Nothing at all was said about the high profile fugitives from the U.S. criminal justice system harbored by the Cuban regime, most notably Joanne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur. She was convicted for murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 and received a life sentence. She escaped to Cuba and was granted “asylum” there in 1984. Evidently, a convicted murderer who killed a policeman in the United States is the Castro regime’s idea of a “political” prisoner deserving of the Castro regime’s protection.

President Obama acknowledged that we have “two different systems,” but said that “we are moving forward, not looking backwards.”  He mentioned several examples of administrative changes he has made to make it easier for Cubans and Americans to do business together, promote educational exchanges and partnerships in health, science, the environment, and development of the Internet in Cuba.

So far, it appears that business between the two countries will be primarily on Cuba’s terms. That should be no surprise, since the Obama administration is accustomed to making bad deals in which it makes many concessions and gets much less in return. Cuba is looking for more foreign investment, particularly in its tourism industry. But it will be foreign investment with strings attached. Foreign managers do not get to make major human resource decisions and continue to be limited to holding minority ownership interests.

Starwood, for example, just announced that it will be operating hotels in Cuba. Under the deal, Starwood will refurbish and manage the hotels under one of its brand names, but ownership will remain with Cuban state enterprises. And in the software industry some American jobs may be outsourced to Cuba. “Were the government to improve Internet connectivity and telecommunications, Cuba could develop a competitive outsourcing sector, either state-run or independent, experts said,” according to an article published by the New York Times last June. With help promised by President Obama to develop Cuba’s Internet connectivity, telecommunications and online commerce, the loss of U.S. jobs to Cuba is in the offing.

President Obama continues to urge Congress to lift its economic embargo completely as soon as possible. He believes that the changes already taking place as a result of his administrative actions, easing trade, investment, travel and other exchanges between the two countries, will set an irreversible course toward the lifting of all restrictions. However, it is reasonable to pause and ask why the changes President Obama has set in motion are not reciprocated equally. Why does he look the other way as dissidents are rounded up on the eve of his visit? Why does he not insist on the return of all criminal fugitives whom have escaped to Cuba rather than face American justice? 

Perhaps most importantly, why does President Obama feel it necessary during his foreign visits to give credence to the criticisms from authoritarian leaders about conditions in the United States? Instead of welcoming Raul Castro’s criticism of the United States’ human rights record, he should have turned to the dictator and asked him these questions: Why are the only Americans seeking protection in Cuba convicted criminals on the run, while over 700,000 Cubans fled their homeland to come to the United States during the first two decades following the 1959 Cuban Revolution?  Why did 250,000 Cuban immigrants arrive in the United States during the first year following the revolution alone? And why are Cubans still flocking to the United States looking for a better life than they had in Cuba? The Pew Research Center reported that “43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry in fiscal year 2015, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.”

The answer is that the Cuban people are continuing to vote with their feet.