Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reflecting on Obama's Cuba Policy Legacy

"The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized." - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002

The President and the dictator address their respective countries on 12/17/14

Obama Cuba policy: Abandoning containment to embrace appeasement

By John Suarez

The Obama Administration's new Cuba policy marks two years on December 17th and with just 35 days left in this Presidency this is a good moment to reflect on what The White House has achieved over the past eight years. President Obama announced his new Cuba policy on December 17, 2014 to great fanfare but downplayed commuting the sentences of three Cuban spies, including Gerardo Hernandez who was serving a life sentence for his role in a murder conspiracy that claimed four innocent lives in 1996. 

However the change, not only in tone but in action, began not in 2014 but in 2009 first with the meeting with Hugo Chavez, second snubbing Cuban dissidents, followed by the repeated unilateral loosening of economic sanctions despite the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizen Alan Gross. Gross would go on to spend the next five years in a Cuban prison cell as a bargaining chip for the Castro regime that demanded the return of the above mentioned spies. 

President Obama shaking hands with President Hugo Chavez (2009)
Unfortunately despite President Obama's claims, the fact of the matter is that the previous Cuba policy did not fail and secondly that U.S. policy towards Cuba over the previous half century was not static. The U.S. after failing to overthrow the Castro regime in the early 1960s along with the risk of a nuclear conflagration in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pursued a policy of containment combining economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. This was a successful policy that raised the cost and limited the expansion of the Castro regime abroad.

Lamentably, both during the Carter (1977 - 1981) and Clinton (1993 - 2001) Administrations the policy of containment was twice weakened and partially dismantled in favor of one of engagement with the dictatorship. On both occasions this legitimized the regime, provided it with more resources that allowed it to project further internationally. This approach coincided with the rise of the Sandinista regime in 1979 in Nicaragua with the assistance of the Cuban intelligence service and the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1999.  Internally human rights violations and levels of violence spiked during both periods coinciding with the Mariel mass exodus of 1980 and the rafter crisis of 1994. 

This pattern has been repeated during the Obama Administration but the third time may prove to be the worse for a number of reasons. This is not a new policy but a very old one that empowers dictators but has no apparent benefit for the United States. It also did not begin on December 17, 2014 although the drive towards embracing the Castro dictatorship was intensified after this date. 

Some of the Cubans killed by the Castro regime over the past eight years
Beginning in 2009 the Obama Administration marginalized Cuban dissidents and the Castro regime understood this and Cuban opposition leaders began dying under suspicious circumstances with their international visibility rising over time as the previous dead activist would generate some international media attention but otherwise zero consequences: Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (2011), Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (2011), Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012), Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (2012), and Harold Cepero (2012).

Despite Cuba under Castro continuing its pattern of outlaw behavior: smuggling tons of weapons  into North Korea in 2013 and getting hold of a U.S. Hellfire missile in 2014 that had been used in European NATO military exercises that afterward ended up in Havana, the negotiations continued.  Four months after President Obama announced this new relationship,  in Colombia another smuggled arms shipment involving Cuba was uncovered in March of 2015. On May 29, 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry, ignoring all the above, rescinded Cuba's designation as a state terror sponsor.

During the Obama Presidency the human rights situation has deteriorated with over 54,838 politically motivated arbitrary detentions in Cuba and escalating violence against activists. Currently there are three high profile cases of a doctor, lawyer and artist separately imprisoned in Cuba for their political beliefs.However the case of extrajudicial violence remains a concern.The case of dissident Sirley Avila Leon the victim of a government engineered machete attack that crippled the 57 year old with machete blows to both legs, arms and the loss of her left hand in May of 2015 is a powerful and disturbing example. Rafters and fleeing refugees continue to be attacked and in some cases shot in the back for trying to leave Cuba as was the case of Yuriniesky Martínez on April 9, 2015. Meanwhile the State Department watered down its report on human trafficking in Cuba.

On February 3, 2015, Rosa María Payá, in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicted the indifference of the US government and the international community: 
On 22 July 2012, Cuban State Security detained the car in which my father, Oswaldo Payá, and my friend Harold Cepero, along with two young European politicians, were traveling. All of them survived, but my father disappeared for hours only to reappear dead, in the hospital in which Harold would die without medical attention. The Cuban government wouldn’t have dared to carry out its death threats against my father if the U.S. government and the democratic world had been showing solidarity. If you turn your face, impunity rages. While you slept, the regime was conceiving their cleansing of the pro-democracy leaders to come. While you sleep, a second generation of dictators is planning with impunity their next crimes.
Two months later Rosa María Payá, and other activists were harassed first at the airport by Panamanian officials and later at the VII Summit of the Americas because the United States, along with the democracies of the region, invited Raul Castro to the summit. Castro arrived with a huge entourage of state security agents, then proceeded to interrupt and shut down official civil society gatherings at the summit to silence dissent. Cuban pro-democracy activists were physically assaulted in a public park when they tried to lay a wreath before a bust of Jose Marti suffering broken bones and black eyes.

Throughout the past two years alone over 89,789 visaless Cubans entered the United States in a huge exodus not seen since the Carter and Clinton years with even more Cubans fleeing to South and Central America.

President Obama and General Castro attended a baseball game together in 2016

Despite all of this President Obama visited Cuba on an official state visit in March 2016 of this year elevating Raul Castro's international stature along with his 51 year old son Alejandro Castro Espin who is being groomed for a leadership role and possible generational succession in Cuba.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration's Cuba policy is having an impact internationally that is negatively impacting human rights in Cuba internally. The latest being the decision of the European Union to "open a new chapter" on relations with Cuba that drops human rights as a condition for normalization and will be the end of a European Common Position adopted in 1996. This arrangement was formalized in a signing ceremony on December 12, 2016.

Furthermore the loosening of sanctions on the Castro regime has coincided with further tightening of economic controls by General Raul Castro and the military over the Cuban economy. Despite the claims that engaging with the dictatorship would lead to more trade the facts say otherwise. Trade between Cuba and the United States has collapsed during the Obama Administration.

There is much more but for the sake of brevity will conclude with President Obama's October 14, 2016 Presidential Policy Directive on Cuba that some credit with costing Secretary Hillary Clinton the 2016 election in Florida by driving up the Cuban American vote for Donald Trump.

All should be concerned that The White House in its October policy directive instructed US intelligence agencies to share information with Castro's spy agency. This is a regime that not only engages in systematic human rights violations, but also has a long track record with international terrorism.

The new Administration should first follow the law and repeal all of Obama's Executive Orders that run afoul of the law or the US Constitution. In the case of Cuba, President Trump has an opportunity to turn a disastrous policy around and work to defend American interests and also speed up a democratic transition that would benefit the region.

Sadly the Obama legacy in Cuba will be remembered as one of appeasing and extending the life of the Castro dictatorship, while paying lip service to human rights and a missed opportunity with the death of Fidel Castro. The embargo policy is a policy of containment that protects vital U.S. interests but is not a policy that frees the Cuban people, but worse yet the Obama Cuba policy is a step in the wrong direction siding with the oppressor while marginalizing the oppressed.

Some victims of Castro regime violence since 2012

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