Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On Cuba Policy: President Obama was no Ronald Reagan

Differing foreign policy legacies

Preaident Reagan with Gorbachev 1988 and President Obama and Castro 2016

Some are trying to equate President Obama's approach to Cuba with President Reagan's approach to Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The policies of the two Presidents could not be farther apart. This is not a question of Mr. Obama falling short, but actively going in the opposite direction from the policies of Mr. Reagan.

Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981 and re-imposed the Cuba travel ban, toughened economic sanctions undoing Jimmy Carter's detente with Fidel Castro, in 1982 placed the Castro regime on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and started Radio Marti to break through the communist monopoly with uncensored information for Cubans on the island. 

Ronald Reagan was an unapologetic anti-communist who empowered dissidents and engaged in acts of solidarity to underline their importance.  Lastly, President Reagan went to Russia in the midst of Perestroika and Glasnost which meant improving human rights standards and greater freedoms along with dissidents empowered.

In stark contrast, Barack Obama repeatedly loosened economic sanctions, marginalized dissidents and downplayed their importance early on in 2009 refusing to meet with them; the Obama State Department threatened the daughter of a martyred dissident in order to protect the sensibilities of the Castro regime's foreign minister in 2015. Not to mention claiming that there was no room for dissidents at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana later  that same year.

President Obama went to Cuba in the midst of a human rights crackdown following the 2012 murders of high profile opposition leaders Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero Escalante. Less than a year after a fleeing refugee was shot in the back in the spring of 2015 by a Cuban state security agent.

President Obama's Cuba policy is straight out of the Jimmy Carter playbook that Ronald Reagan rolled back in 1981. This can be seen by the aftermath of both policies. Whereas Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, declared Reagan "a great president" in stark contrast in January of 2017 Cuban troops marched before Raul Castro insulting President Obama and offering to make him a hat out of bullets to the head.

Why the different outcome? President Reagan did engage the Soviet Union in a dialogue but it was one based on hard truths and often language that was not diplomatic. He understood who and what he was dealing with and identifying the regime for what it was in 1983: 
During my first press conference as President, in answer to a direct question, I pointed out that, as good Marxist-Leninists, the Soviet leaders have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution. I think I should point out I was only quoting Lenin, their guiding spirit, who said in 1920 that they repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas -- that's their name for religion -- or ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. And everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old, exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.Well, I think the refusal of many influential people to accept this elementary fact of Soviet doctrine illustrates an historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are. We saw this phenomenon in the 1930's. We see it too often today.This doesn't mean we should isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them.
Contrast this President Obama's statement on the death of Fidel Castro on November 26, 2016:
At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people. We know that this moment fills Cubans - in Cuba and in the United States - with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him. For nearly six decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba was marked by discord and profound political disagreements. During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends - bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity. This engagement includes the contributions of Cuban Americans, who have done so much for our country and who care deeply about their loved ones in Cuba. Today, we offer condolences to Fidel Castro's family, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Cuban people. In the days ahead, they will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.
The statement is morally neutral and fails to lay out the murderous and diabolical nature of Fidel Castro or a proper understanding of the nature of the dictatorship in Cuba. This moral equivalence is found through out past administrations during the period known as detente that ended with Ronald Reagan. On January 29, 1981 in a news conference responding to a question from Sam Donaldson of ABC news whether detente was possible with the Soviet Union; the new president answered as follows
"Well, so far detente's been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims. I don't have to think of an answer as to what I think their intentions are; they have repeated it. I know of no leader of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use.
Now, as long as they do that and as long as they, at the same time, have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards, I think when you do business with them, even at a detente, you keep that in mind."
Reagan understood the nature of communist ideology something many have forgotten today or never learned in dealing with the communist regime in Cuba under the Castro brothers. Furthermore his policy towards the Soviet Union was one of confrontation to undermine the Soviet economy. While it is true that Reagan lifted the grain embargo imposed on the Soviets by President Carter in retaliation for the 1981 invasion of Afghanistan he did impose new sanctions and policies that sought to cripple their economy. According to Gus W. Weiss in the CIA report, The Farewell Dossier, Duping the Soviets
On 17 January 1983, to define his policy for political, military, and economic relations with the USSR, Reagan approved National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, U. S. Relations with the USSR, a document spelling out purposes, themes, and strategy for competing in the Cold War. It specified three policy elements: containment and reversal of Soviet expansionism, promotion of change in the internal system to reduce the power of the ruling elite, and engagement in negotiations and agreements that would enhance US interests. In economic policy, NSDD 75 highlighted the need to control technology; Farewell's reports had moved those writing the Directive to put emphasis on preventing technology loss, and the President had agreed (so a KGB defector working for a foreign intelligence service put his stamp on a part of presidential policy). Later in 1983, Reagan proposed the SDI, which Gorbachev and the Soviet military took far more seriously than American commentators. SDI would, if deployed, place unacceptable economic and technical demands on the Soviet system. Even Reagan's 1983 "evil empire" speech had its economic effect, for immediately thereafter the Soviet military asked for a budget increase, this on top of already-bloated defense expenditures.
In March of 2014 The Washington Times reported on how early on in July of 1981 the Reagan administration warned Europe not to build a pipeline from oil and gas rich Russia to the West because it would increase Soviet leverage. 

Contrast this with Secretary of State John Kerry who in an interview with journalist Andres Oppenheimer made it known that "the United States and Cuba are talking about ways to solve the Venezuelan crisis." Despite the decision of Venezuela's leadership to adopt the Cuban model not to mention the presence of Cuban troops and intelligence agents contributing to the transition of Venezuela into a totalitarian dictatorship, the Obama Administration reached out to the Castro regime in the belief that the 58 year old communist dictatorship would some how make a positive contribution. Legitimizing outlaw regimes that undermine American interests is the anti-thesis of what Reagan would do.

With Cuba Ronald Reagan backed the creation of a Radio Free Cuba to break Castro regime's information monopoly over the Cuban people beginning in 1981. In a 1983 address, President Reagan explained the importance of getting the truth to oppressed peoples:
The Soviets are terrified of the truth. They understand well and they dread the meaning of St. John's words: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." The truth is mankind's best hope for a better world. That's why in times like this, few assets are more important than the Voice of America and Radio Liberty, our primary means of getting the truth to the Russian people.[...]  We've repeatedly urged the Congress to support our long-term modernization program and our proposal for a new radio station, Radio Marti, for broadcasting to Cuba. The sums involved are modest, but for whatever reason this critical program has not been enacted. Today I'm appealing to the Congress: Help us get the truth through. Help us strengthen our international broadcasting effort by supporting increased funding for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and by authorizing the establishment of Radio Marti.
When it finally went on the air in 1985 Radio Marti marked a before and after inside Cuba. At the time President Reagan hoped that Radio Marti would ''help defuse the war hysteria on which much of current Cuban Government policy is predicated.'' The Castro regime's response was to end an immigration agreement and suspend the visits to Cuba by Cubans living in the United States.The Hoover Institution in 1989 listed it as one of a 100 conservative victories.  The Reagan Administration also named former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and made human rights in Cuba a priority there. The end result was that for the first and last time Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Commission were able to visit Cuban political prisoners.

None of this has been achieved with the Obama Administration's detente policy. The Obama White House in its 2015 budget proposal advocated ending Radio Marti as a part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency. This would effectively gut the radio station and is the first step in getting rid of it. Apparently in the drive to engage the Castro regime the White House was willing to silence one of the few voices of free and uncensored information reaching the Cuban people.

The Obama Administration did not protest when a Radio Marti reporter, who was properly accredited, was escorted out and expelled from a press conference by Cuban state security at the Summit of the Americas in Panama and the Voice of America, apparently did not report on this. Thankfully CNN in Spanish did.

Ronald Reagan placed Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982 because of the dictatorship's involvement in Cocaine trafficking and arms smuggling to communist guerrilla  groups in Colombia. It was the Obama Administration that ignored continuing bad behavior by the regime that removed Cuba from the list in May of 2015.

There are many lessons to learn from the Reagan and Obama years but on foreign policy the two Administrations had profound differences in their approach to Cuba.

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