Last December, President Obama announced a major shift in US-Cuban relations. The White House left Congress and most of the President’s own Administration – including the State Department – in the dark. Instead, two White House aides held a series of secret talks with the Cuban regime over two years – talks which the Administration has since conceded were “non-transactional.” In other words, these turned out to be one-sided negotiations, with the U.S. making a series of concessions to Havana.
Had the White House consulted more widely, it might have heard that Havana was facing the prospect of losing the largesse of its benefactor, Venezuela, a country suffering under the weight of failed socialist policies, plummeting global oil prices, social unrest, and the world’s highest inflation rates. Under these conditions, the US could have insisted that the Cuban government make basic human rights concessions, such as ending the systematic harassment and imprisonment of dissidents in Castro’s gulags. The fact is, these negotiations turned out to be a tragic missed opportunity for the United States to stand with Cuban dissidents in support of human rights and democratic values.
Indeed, when the Stars and Stripes was hoisted over the U.S. Embassy in Havana, a ceremony Secretary of State John Kerry presided over, Cuban dissidents and human rights activists were shamefully kept out. The Secretary later explained that the ceremony was a “government to government moment, with very limited space,” a weak excuse that underscores the extent to which the Cuban regime is calling the shots in the thawing of relations.
While the negotiations did secure the release of a USAID contractor who had been held in deplorable conditions on trumped up charges, the more sophisticated Cuban negotiators won the release of three Cuban spies held in the U.S. for espionage and their involvement in shooting down a US plane in 1996. As if this weren’t enough, the Cuban negotiators got normalized diplomatic relations along with relaxed trade, travel, and banking regulations that directly benefit the regime. Cuba also won its removal from the state sponsor of terrorism list, despite the fact that the country continues to harbor members of US-designated terrorist groups FARC and ETA, not to mention the US terrorist and Black Liberation Army activist Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
Perhaps seeing how he has outmaneuvered President Obama, Raul Castro demanded even more concessions from the United State last month at his speech before the UN General Assembly: a return of the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, the end of U.S.-sponsored Radio and TV Marti broadcasts and other “destabilizing” activities against Cuba, and “just compensation” for the embargo.
In defending this policy change, the President has compared our economic relationship with Cuba to that of China and Vietnam. But China and Vietnam at least allow foreign firms to hire and recruit employees, without their pay going directly to the government.
Not so in Cuba, with its North Korea-like economy. Cuban workers at a foreign-owned resort receive only a fraction of their salary – as little as 5 percent. Castro or Kim, the method is the same: extract hard currency from foreign business and invest in the state’s security apparatus.
This makes a sham of President Obama’s claim that the U.S.’s one-sided concessions were all done in the spirit of “empowering the Cuban entrepreneur.” To the contrary, changes that would allow budding entrepreneurs on the island to benefit from relaxed import/export regulations designate the communist Cuban government as the arbiter of what sector and which individuals will be considered “entrepreneurs.” This will most certainly help to further line the pockets of the Castro brothers while leaving the Cuban people out, just as Secretary Kerry did when he opened the U.S. embassy in August.
While White House negotiators did manage to secure the release of 53 Cuban dissidents, more than half have been rearrested at some point since. A recent Freedom House report reads: “systematic use of short-term ‘preventative’ detentions—along with harassment [and] beatings,” is used to intimidate the opposition, isolate dissidents, and maintain control. Advocates put the number of political arrests in Cuba last year at over 8,000. In September alone, there were 882 political arrests, of which at least 353 were during the Pope’s visit. Human rights watchers are particularly concerned about Zaqueo Baez, Maria Acon and Ismael Bonet, all of whom were arrested as they tried to plea with the Holy Father during his visit to the island. While their arrests were captured live by the international media, since their imprisonment, there has not been any information regarding their well-being.
Instead of dismantling a 50-year-old failed policy, as it claims, the Administration has given a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life to continue its repression at home and support for militant regimes abroad. Congress must stand firm and resist any attempt by President Obama to hand over the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. Despite rumors that the Administration will acquiesce to Castro’s demand that the base be returned – and in doing so, fulfill the President’s long-stated goal of closing its detention center – Guantanamo still provides essential support to U.S. security and humanitarian operations in the Western Hemisphere. According to SOUTHCOM Commander General John Kelly, “Beyond the detention operations, the naval station has played a key role as a logistical hub in support of disaster relief, migrant contingency, and counter-illicit trafficking operations.” In addition, further attempts by President Obama to chip away at the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996 – continuing his penchant for ruling by executive fiat – will be met by staunch resistance in Congress.
As with the Iranian nuclear agreement, President Obama has been out-negotiated, in this case by a tiny communist nation. The fact is, capitulation and the neglect of time-honored U.S. values has done very little to bring about peace, and instead has made parts of the world less safe, less stable, and less democratic. Obama’s Cuba legacy is but another example of his tragic foreign policy failures.