The Globe and Mail, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016

Original Article: Why is Obama visiting Cuba?

Only two months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out the conditions under which he would visit Cuba before he leaves office. “If, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and expression and possibilities of ordinary Cubans, I’d love to use a visit as a way of highlighting that progress,” he said on the first anniversary of his historic announcement of the renewal of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Communist holdout.

The world has become accustomed to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy flip-flops (see his “red line” in Syria) and desire to do away with the image of the United States as a meddling and moralizing superpower. But even critics of the five-decade U.S. policy of isolating the Castro regime were taken aback by news that Mr. Obama will next month become the first sitting president to visit to Cuba in 88 years.

In no material sense has Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, expanded the freedoms of ordinary citizens. Recent baby steps toward economic reform fit a pattern that seasoned Cuba watchers recognize all too well. The Castros are experts in diffusing the frustrations of average Cubans with their stultified economic conditions by offering up mini-reforms that, once the dust settles, never amount to much for average folk. Low expectations are now so integral to the Cuban condition that mere crumbs are welcomed.

There has been even less progress on human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detentions climbed steadily throughout 2015 and hit 1,474 people in January, according to the Cuban Observatory on Human Rights. Political repression has not eased. “The figures reflect only certain repressive actions, and therefore do not express all the violations of various human rights that occur in Cuba,” the Madrid-based organization noted. “But they serve to demonstrate the lack of political will to change on the part of the Cuban government, which remains stuck in intolerance and immobility.”

This has not stopped the Obama administration from unilaterally easing restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba and sending remittances to relatives on the island. It has reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana and announced plans for the resumption of commercial flights to Cuba by U.S. airlines. (Congress, however, has no intention of lifting the U.S. trade embargo.)

Mr. Obama plans to meet with dissidents, but under what conditions remains to be seen. The visit will be covered by Cuba’s state-run media, which will showcase to Cubans their censored version of it. It is not Mr. Obama’s style to deliver a Reaganesque ultimatum on foreign soil. The President hopes to “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.” Good luck with that.

The Castros have not held on to power for 57 years by taking friendly advice from neighbours on how to transition to democracy. If anything, Mr. Obama risks enhancing their legitimacy and strengthening their grip on the island’s economy. The Cuban military, also headed by Raul Castro, controls most of the economy (including its burgeoning tourist industry) and stands to benefit the most from increased U.S. trade and investment. The regime is desperate for hard currency, especially now that fast-spiralling Venezuela can no longer play Cuba’s benefactor.

Mr. Obama seeks to make his opening toward Cuba “irreversible” for a future president and prepare for a post-Castro Cuba. But it would be naive to believe the 84-year-old Raul, who plans to quit the presidency in 2018, has not planned for his succession. Many Cuban experts believe he has chosen 55-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, a Communist hardliner and first vice-president of the Cuban Council of State, to succeed him as president. But the real post-Raul power may lie with his son and/or son-in-law; both are top military officials who run some of Cuba’s biggest businesses.

Supporters of Mr. Obama’s approach argue that human-rights violations and political repression have not stopped the United States from pursuing economic and diplomatic relations with China. So why apply a tougher standard to Cuba, especially when the United States continues to indefinitely detain and deprive of due process dozens of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?

The answer is that Cuba is in North America’s backyard and the Castros head the longest-running dictatorship in the Western hemisphere. Their brutality is well documented, in spite of the romanticism with which Canadians often view them.

The world does not need more (of the Castros’) Cuba.


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