Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some observations on President Obama's upcoming trip to Cuba

Ominous clouds on the eve of an official visit

President Obama's official visit to Cuba: Legitimizing Castro or helping democrats?
President Barack Obama arrives in Cuba on March 20, 2016 with his family for an official visit to the Castro dictatorship in the administration's continuing effort to make the new United States policy towards the country irreversible after he leaves office.  However, history has demonstrated that engaging dictatorships inevitably has profoundly negative consequences despite the best intentions. The last U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

The stated goals of the Obama administration's Cuba policy are that this will change perceptions in the region, present opportunities for increased economic engagement between the United States and Cuba while helping to improve the lives of Cubans on the island setting the stage in the future for a democratic transition.

Despite these goals the results have been a worsening human rights situation in Cuba, a collapse in trade between Cuba and the United States to its lowest level since 2002, and a new refugee exodus from the island. Compared to the previous policy, the Obama administration's new Cuba policy has been a failure. The number of politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba have increased more than four-fold during the Obama administration.

Ideas have consequences and the premise upon which the Obama administration's Cuba policy was announced on December 17, 2014 that the United States from 1961 until 2014 had an unchanging policy of isolating Cuba is not true.

Obama policy follows same failed approach as Carter and Clinton
President Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1980 undertook a policy of engagement with the Castro regime that ended the travel ban, opened the U.S. Interests Section ( a de facto embassy) and saw formal high level negotiations between the United States and Cuba. The policy resulted in the Mariel exodus, reversals of U.S. national interests in Latin America with the rise of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and a regional conflict throughout Central America, and Cuban troops engaged in open warfare in Africa. Ronald Reagan reversed this failed policy in 1982.

President Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2000 pursued a policy of engagement with the Castro regime. In 1994 the Clinton administration initiated regular contacts between the U.S. and Cuban military that included joint military exercises at the Guantanamo Naval base. ( Despite his rhetoric George W. Bush continued the practice during his presidency.) During this period of "constructive engagement" brutal massacres of Cubans such as the July 13, 1994 "13 de Marzo" tugboat massacre and the February 24, 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down took place. The shoot down involved two planes blown to bits over international airspace by Cuban MiGs killing three American citizens and a Cuban resident who were engaged in the search and rescue of Cuban rafters. Since it occurred while President Clinton was seeking re-election and his only options were to do nothing, military action, or toughen sanctions he opted for the latter signing the Cuban Libertad Act of 1996

However, once re-elected to a second term President Clinton set out again to normalize relations. The first sitting president to shake hands with Fidel Castro on September 6, 2000 was Bill Clinton. One month later he signed  Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TEFRA) that opened trade between the Castro regime and U.S. companies. Opposition in congress led to that trade not being subsidized by U.S. taxpayers by not providing government backed credits ensuring that business would be cash and carry.

Third time, so far, is not the charm
The Obama administration's attempt to normalize relations with the Castro regime began in 2009. On April 13, 2009 the Obama Administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba put in place during the Bush Administration and paved the way for American telecommunications firms to begin providing service for Cubans. A few days later on April 18, 2009 addressing Latin American and Caribbean leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago President Obama declared:
"The US seeks a new beginning with Cuba. [...]I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."

In June of 2009 President Obama snubbed the 2009 winners of the NED Democracy Award which were five leaders of Cuba's pro-democracy movement earning a rebuke in The Washington Post. On December 5, 2009 Alan Gross, a United States citizen was arrested in Cuba and was held as a hostage until December 17, 2014 when the Cuban dictatorship's demands were met and all of the five Cuban spies, including Gerardo Hernandez serving a double life sentence for espionage and his role in the conspiracy to murder three U.S. citizens and once resident on February 24, 1996, were back in Cuba. Two days later, President Obama tried to downplay the February 24, 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down ignoring the well documented evidence that it was a premeditated act of state terrorism.

Between June of 2009 and December 17, 2014 high profile Cuban dissidents were killed under suspicious circumstances in Cuba, but the drive to normalize relations meant that there were no consequences for the dictatorship and the killings continued generating a body count. Beginning with Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23, 2010 and peaking with the suspicious deaths of Ladies in White founder,  Laura Inés Pollán Toledo on October 14, 2011 and Christian Liberation Movement leaders, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante on July 22, 2012.

Unfortunately, since December 17, 2014 the Obama administration's actions have had and will continue to have negative consequences for both Cubans and Americans by embarking on a series of actions that ignore the nature of the regime in Cuba while undermining human rights.

Policy empowers Castro regime not Cubans
On January 27, 2015 the Spanish newspaper ABC reported that the Castro regime, in collaboration with Venezuela, was providing protection for drug traffickers traveling between Venezuela and the United States. According to news accounts the son of the Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, Germán Sánchez Otero, was using PDVSA planes to smuggle drugs with the United States as the final destination. Wikileaks revealed that the United States and Cuba, since at least 2009 have been "cooperating" on drug trafficking. Fox News Latino has published favorable reporting on this relationship as recently as January 12, 2015. The DEA is now collaborating with the Castro regime and sharing information despite the dictatorship's continued involvement in drug trafficking.

Removing Cubans from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on May 29, 2015 was not a symbolic act as some have claimed. This move provides the regime with more financial resources to engage in activities that destabilize U.S. national security interests, closes a door to victims to seek justice in the courts, and does not bode well for the future.

On July 20, 2015 at the State Department, Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo attended a press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry and Castro's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez. Rosa Maria had proper accreditation as a member of the press. Rear Admiral John Kirby,  the State Department spokesman, took Rosa Maria aside and warned her that she would be physically removed if she asked any questions or caused any kind of disturbance. This was most likely done to appease the Castro regime's foreign minister.

On July 27, 2015 the Obama administration watered down the State Department's human trafficking report for political aims that included ignoring the severity of sex trafficking in Cuba and the use of slave labor.

Secretary of State John Kerry did not invite Cuban human rights defenders to the flag raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015. The State Department argued that it was a government to government affair and that there was not enough space to accommodate the dissidents but did have room to fly down a plane load of lobbyists.  Journalist Andres Oppenheimer laid out the consequences of this snub: "Kerry’s trip to Havana didn’t break new ground on human rights even symbolically, and in effect hurt Cuba’s fledgling internal opposition by making it look irrelevant in the eyes of many Cubans."

The Obama administration claims to have met with "Cuban American leaders" to listen to their concerns regarding Cuba policy on March 16, 2016 but not one elected Cuban American official, Democrat or Republican, was invited nor prominent Cuban American critics of his policy.  Formulating Cuba policy while ignoring dissenting views is a recipe for disaster and the worsening situation in Cuba demonstrates that failure.

Violence and killing of dissidents and fleeing refugees continues

Sirley Ávila León: Holds state security responsible for May 2015 machete attack
 Sirley Ávila León, an ex-delegate of the People’s Assembly (Poder Popular) who in 2012 led a battle against the authorities of Las Tunas for a school in her town that led her to join the opposition was gravely wounded in a machete attack orchestrated by State Security on May 24, 2015. She suffered deep cuts to her neck, knees, arms and lost her left hand. She denounced that they are trying to be rid of her and that officials on several occasions pressured her son (now ex-military) to commit her to a mental hospital arguing that dissenting from the system was insane. This attack followed a pattern of escalating repression that in addition to a beating by state security agents, included cows and pigs attacked with machetes, and arson. Sirley then added “I reaffirm that this is something that was prepared against me for some time.” Ávila is accusing Cuban state security of being behind the machete attack.

Yuriniesky Martínez with his dad, son, and on (right) how he was found
On April 9, 2015 Yuriniesky Martínez Reina (age 28) was shot in the back and killed by state security chief Miguel Angel Río Seco Rodríguez in the Martí municipality of Matanzas, Cuba for peacefully trying to leave Cuba. A group of young men were building a boat near Menéndez beach to flee the island, when they were spotted trying to leave and were shot at by state security.

Unfortunately, with President Obama's new Cuba policy, American taxpayers will be joining their European and Latin American counterparts in subsidizing the Cuban military and security who also happen to run the tourism industry in the country.

American taxpayers will be left to pick up the tab
Under the U.S. embargo American companies made $5.2 billion dollars in cash and carry trade with Cuba. At the same time with normal relations and financial institutions providing credits several countries according to the Paris Club lost $15 billion to Cuba. Under the Obama administration's push for normalization trade between Cuba and the United States has steadily collapsed. The high point of trade between the two countries was the last year of the Bush administration (2008) when it peaked at 711.5 million dollars. Trade between the United States and Cuba in 2015 totaled 180.3 million dollars the lowest figure since 2002.

According to polls conducted by the International Republican Institute in 2008 and 2011 only a minority of Cubans (3% to 8%) in the island do not blame the embargo as the source of their ills but low salaries and high cost of living.

The Obama Treasury Department on January 27, 2016 joined France and the rest of the world in legalizing financing of transactions between U.S. companies and the Castro regime.  The Cuba policy the Obama administration is abandoning has protected U.S. taxpayers. In the future in real terms trade between U.S. companies and the Cuban dictatorship will be negative, as it has been for the French, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Russians, the Canadians and many others.

The bottom line
On three occasions American presidents have sought to normalize relations with the Castro dictatorship and on three occasions the outcome has been: a worsened human rights situation in Cuba, U.S. national security interests negatively effected and a migration crisis. The Obama administration is correct about one thing: "We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result." 

On January 19, 1928 President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady visited Cuba and met with General Gerardo Machado who at the time was transforming his rule into Cuba's first dictatorship. The aftermath of the Coolidge visit saw Cuba deeply entrenched in its first dictatorship, rising political violence under Machado's dictatorial rule. Let us hope that President Barack Obama and the First Lady's visit to Cuba in 2016 does not lead to a similar result. 

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