President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba in two weeks in an oddly timed excursion that, in many ways, encapsulates all that’s wrong with the philosophy, goals, and priorities of his administration’s foreign policy.
Simply put, it’s the wrong trip, to the wrong place, at the wrong time, and under the wrong circumstances.
Admittedly, the longstanding U.S. policy of isolating Havana was due for review. Washington engages with authoritarian regimes of all kinds. Some, like Beijing and Moscow, are simply too big to ignore; others, like Cairo and Riyadh, are key to protecting U.S. regional interests. That tiny Cuba was a lonely exception largely reflected the political power of its emigre population.
Moreover, hopes that U.S. isolation would help topple the Castro regime proved illusory, as the ailing revolutionary founder Fidel transferred power to his brother, Raul, in 2008, leaving the half-century family business in place.
Still, Obama’s trip is troubling. It will cap off more than a year of efforts through which the president deployed his usual array of questionable global strategies – appeasing the regime in question, downplaying its human rights record and ignoring its growing ties to America’s adversaries – in hopes of changing Cuba’s behavior.
“I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” Obama declared in December 2014 in announcing that he was changing America’s “relationship with the people of Cuba.” The United States, he said, would work to reestablish U.S.-Cuba relations, reopen an embassy in Havana, review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror, and increase “travel, commerce, and the flow of information” between the two nations. As he did with, among others, Tehran and Moscow, Obama reassured Havana of his good intentions, offered to re-write bilateral relations if Havana responded in kind, and provided a financial reward up front.
But just as Tehran grabbed the sanctions relief of the U.S.-led nuclear deal without changing its hostile approach toward Washington, and just as Moscow secured U.S. concessions over missile defense in Eastern Europe while remaining belligerent, so too is Havana pocketing U.S. largesse without changing its stripes. Unfortunately, Obama is responding to Havana as he did to Tehran and Moscow – showering the Castro regime with still more rewards while ignoring its spit-in-your-eye behavior.
“Where we disagree,” Obama said of Cuba 15 months ago, “we will raise those differences directly – as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba.” But, he explained, “I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”
But as the president has provided aid to Cuba, lifted its terror designation, opened the embassy, announced an agreement to restore direct flights between America and Cuba, and planned to become the first president to visit the island since 1928, the human rights-abusing regime has cracked down ever more harshly on its dissidents, detaining, jailing, beating, restricting and otherwise intimidating them in record numbers.
Since Obama’s policy change, Cuba has recorded its three highest monthly totals of political arrests of the last six years – 1,447 in November 2015, 1,414 in January, and at least 1,141 last month – according to the opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. There have been at least 2,555 political arrests this year already, totaling almost a third of the 8,616 that took place in all of 2015.
Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans late last week to visit Cuba before Obama’s trip due to a dispute with Havana about which dissidents Obama can see while he’s there. But even in the face of Havana’s stepped-up political crackdown and its recalcitrance over dissidents, Obama plans to make his trip.
Meanwhile, Havana is strengthening its ties to North Korea, which is developing missiles and warheads that can hit the U.S. mainland, raising questions about whether Cuba’s proximity to Florida could make it a security threat.
With tensions between Washington and Pyongyang growing, North Korea’s foreign minister visited Cuba in March of 2015 and the North Korean Workers’ Party’s secretary of international relations visited in June. In recent years, Cuba has been caught smuggling weapons to North Korea, violating United Nations sanctions.
But if Obama’s concerned that he’s getting little for his new policy, that human rights in Cuba are deteriorating, and that Havana is cozying up to one of America’s most reckless enemies, he’s not showing it.
Have a nice trip, Mr. President.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.