|President Obama addresses the UN General Assembly earlier today|
We opened relations with Cuba, helped Colombia end Latin America’s longest war, and we welcome a democratically elected leader of Myanmar to this Assembly. [...]Hopefully the war in Colombia has come to an end, but with Raul Castro serving as a mediator skepticism about the long term prospects for peace are not unreasonable. However studying the contrast in US policy towards the military regimes in Burma and Cuba along with the differing outcomes teaches an important lesson. Dictatorships do not fall or leave of their own accord, but respond to pressures both internal and external that demand change. This can best be seen by the outcomes in Burma and Cuba with regards to U.S. foreign policy.
I remember the young entrepreneurs I met who are now starting new businesses in Cuba, the parliamentarians who used to be just a few years ago political prisoners in Myanmar.
President Obama on April 3, 2009 loosened economic sanctions, beginning a series of unilateral concessions with the dictatorship in Cuba that would have dire consequences for democrats in Cuba. As the President extended a hand to the Castro dictatorship he withdrew it from Cuban democrats. President Obama refused to meet in June of 2009 with the winners of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award who happened to be five Cuban dissidents. This was the first time in five years that the President of the United States had not met with the award laureates.
Meanwhile in Burma sanctions were maintained without changes until 2012 and improvement of relations and lifting sanctions made contingent upon democratic reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from a total of 15 years house arrest on November 13, 2010. She made the case for maintaining sanctions until serious democratic reforms were finally underway.
The response by the Cuban government to the overtures of the Obama administration in December of 2009 was to take Alan Gross, an American citizen hostage. The administration responded with initial silence and it took American diplomats 25 days to visit the arbitrarily detained American. On January 14, 2011 with Gross still arbitrarily detained in Cuba the President loosened travel restrictions on travel to the island to an extent not seen in a decade.
The concessions and the cold shoulder to Cuban dissidents sent a clear message to the dictatorship that would be devastating for the prospects of a nonviolent and democratic transition in Cuba.
Rising levels of violence against nonviolent activists and the suspicious deaths of human rights defenders: Orlando Zapata Tamayo (February 23, 2010), Daisy Talavera de las Mercedes Lopez (January 31, 2011) , Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (May 8, 2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (October 14, 2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (January 19, 2012), Sergio Diaz Larrastegui (April 19, 2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (July 22, 2012) and Harold Cepero Escalante (July 22, 2012).
Both Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá each had the international recognition and ability to lead a democratic transition in Cuba. Oswaldo Payá had forced the dictatorship to change the Cuban constitution in 2002 in reaction to Project Varela, a citizen initiative demanding legal reforms within the existing system, and Laura Pollán through constant street demonstrations achieved the freedom of scores of Cuban prisoners of conscience in 2010.
Meantime in Burma Aung San Suu Kyi's party the National League for Democracy boycotted the 2010 elections but in 2012 won a stunning victory in another round of elections. Only then did the United States loosen sanctions.
In contrast the Cuba policy of unilateral concessions was escalated on December 17, 2014 with the release of three Cuban spies (including Gerardo Hernandez serving a life sentence for murder conspiracy), the promise of ending all economic sanctions and followed months later by removing the Castro regime from the list of state sponsors of terrorism despite ample reasons to be kept on it.
The White House and Cuba held secret negotiations for 18 months before the December announcement. Coinciding with the start of these negotiations in June of 2013 were a series of machete attacks against opposition activists by regime agents. Not to mention that the Cuban government during these negotiations in 2014 got its hands on a U.S. Hellfire missile and refused to return it to the United States until the story broke in 2016.
Burma in 2016 has Aung San Suu Kyi as the elected leader of her country and representing it at the United Nations and meeting with President Obama at the White House on September 15, 2016. The White House is now calling for the complete lifting of sanctions on Burma but some Burmese democrats warn that it would be a mistake.
At the same time Cuba in 2016 finds tens of thousands fleeing Cuba having lost hope that a democratic transition is imminent, and the Castro regime is breaking new records in religious repression and arbitrary detentions. President Obama and his family visited Cuba between March 20 - 22, 2016 and legitimized Raul Castro and his heir apparent Alexandro Castro Espin in a formal meeting. This broke a tradition beginning in 1969 of not granting official visits to dictators in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite the unilateral loosening of sanctions on the Castro regime, trade between the United States and Cuba has imploded to levels not seen since 2002, and economic control is being centralized in the military. Despite President Obama's claims at the United Nations There are less Cubans who are "self-employed" workers in Cuba today than in 2014 but Castro's military monopolies are expanding and consolidating control over the entire economy.
Hope exists in Burma despite many continuing obstacles while despair is widespread in Cuba among those who want to live in freedom. However Castro's military-intelligence apparatus is optimistic in getting everything they want. Gerardo Hernandez, the Cuban spy sentenced to life in prison for murder conspiracy and freed by Obama as part of his deal with Raul Castro reflects this view: "We are going to have diplomatic relations with the United States without having ceded one iota."