|President Trump at the Manuel Artime Theater with Cuban Americans|
Friday, June 16, 2017 was a good day for Cuba's freedom at the Manuel Artime Theater. On February 3, 2017 White House spokesman Sean Spicer announced that the Trump Administration was in the midst "of a full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba" and that human rights was a priority. Over four months later with the input of all interested parties in the government having a voice a new policy was announced in stark contrast to what the prior Administration did.
The Trump Administration took a first step to address the previous Cuba policy's shortcomings releasing the "National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba" that begins by defining what will guide this new policy:
My Administration's policy will be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, as well as solidarity with the Cuban people. I will seek to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. To that end, we must channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society.The previous US Cuba policy was drawn up in secret, excluding Congressmen, Senators and even the State Department but included high ranking members of the Castro regime, among them Raul Castro's son, Alejandro Castro, with a small group of Administration officials led by an individual with a degree in creative writing. The end result did not advance U.S. national interests, marginalized Cuban dissidents, and worsened human rights in Cuba.
Cuban Americans where told that the new Cuba policy was unchangeable and Hillary Clinton openly campaigned on lifting sanctions on the Castro regime and her running mate Senator Tim Kaine said, "...we may have a fast or slow process, but we're not going back". This led the Brigade 2506 to endorse Mr. Trump for President on October 25, 2016. Donald J. Trump got 54% of the Cuban American vote in 2016 that helped him win Florida. Elections have consequences and Cuba policy is being changed.
What is taking place now is a debate over what U.S. Cuba policy should be defined by what would serve the just interests of the United States. The previous policy failed on several counts and needs to be dismantled and replaced. The memorandum and Friday's statement by President Trump is a good start but much more needs to be done.
Critics of President Trump's Cuba policy announcement such as Fabiola Santiago call this policy announcement "window dressing, a way for Trump to save face with Bay of Pigs veterans and his Cuban-American supporters," trying to downplay its importance but the howls of indignation indicate that it is not cosmetic.
The Miami Herald Editorial praising the new Cuba policy, "Trump right to make Cuba pay for its intransigence," will give some insight into all the angry noise from those who backed the previous policy:
Trump’s new measures are designed to exert more pressure on Havana to reform itself." ... "Trump is right to recalibrate this policy without jettisoning it wholesale. In one of the most important changes, transactions with the Business Administration Group, S.A — GAESA — will be prohibited. GAESA is the company of the Cuban Armed Forces that, according to estimates, controls 60 percent of the Cuban economy."This recalibration is a shift in direction but how far it will go depends on what is done over the next three years. When the previous Administration announced the new Cuba policy on December 17, 2014 in a post titled "Obama's Legacy: Normalizing relations with an Abnormal Regime" the observation was made that "President Obama in his address gave the impression that the economic embargo had been completely lifted and that is not the case."
Then, the Obama White House took a step in a drive to set a new policy that over 2015 - 2016 would continue to radically change U.S. Cuba policy. The Obama State Department politicized the human trafficking report to benefit the Castro regime, and took Cuba off the list of state terror sponsors. President Obama signed executive orders repeatedly loosening sanctions, carried out an official state visit that helped to raise the profile of Raul Castro's son Alejandro Castro as a successor, ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to share information with the Castro regime's secret police in October 2016, and finally shut the door on fleeing Cubans in January of 2017. All of this that unfolded could be traced back to secret negotiations begun in mid 2016, a handshake between President Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral on December 10, 2013, although formally announced on December 17, 2014.
June 16th, like December 17, 2014, marked a turning point in Cuba policy. In both cases claims were made that exceeded the changes announced at the time. What was announced on December 17, 2014 set the direction on Cuba policy for the rest of the Obama Administration. However on both occasions a tone was set that was equally important.
President Obama described the premeditated act of state terrorism carried out on Fidel and Raul Castro's orders on February 24, 1996 as a "tragic circumstance" on December 19, 2014 while ignoring the open indictments on members of the Cuban military directly involved in the shoot down by U.S. courts. The human rights situation in Cuba during the Obama administration deteriorated and there was a body count that coincided with the normalization drive that first began in 2009 and continued to the end of that Presidency.
President Trump identified the Castro regime for what it is and denounced it for its past crimes in dramatic contrast with his predecessor:
"To the Cuban government, I say: Put an end to the abuse of dissidents. Release the political prisoners. Stop jailing innocent people. Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms. Return the fugitives from American justice -- including the return of the cop-killer Joanne Chesimard. And finally, hand over the Cuban military criminals who shot down and killed four brave members of Brothers to the Rescue who were in unarmed, small, slow civilian planes. (Applause.) Those victims included Mario de la Pena, Jr., and Carlos Costa."Last year during the campaign Donald Trump met with Cuban exiles and listened to their concerns. Attending the gathering on Friday where Cuban opposition activists from the island such as Angel Moya, Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez", Antonio Rodiles, Martha Beatriz Roque, and young Cuban millennials such as Rey Anthony Lastre who'd taken to the streets to protest the previous policy in 2014 and 2015 when Hillary Clinton advocated the lifting of the Cuba embargo when she visited Florida International University.
Among the human rights activists sitting front and center behind President Trump was Rosa María Payá Acevedo whose father Oswaldo Payá and friend Harold Cepero were both murdered on July 22, 2012 for denouncing the fake change the Castro regime was preparing to carry out. Rosa is 28 years old. She was able to talk to President Trump and hand him information on Cuba Decide's campaign for a plebiscite and on the murder of her dad and friend.
Contrast this with how she was treated by the Obama Administration when Rosa María attended a press conference, as an accredited member of the press (she'd been writing a blog for a newspaper) she was threatened by the State Department spokesman that if she asked a question she would be forcibly removed to avoid offending the sensibilities of Castro's Foreign Minister. The exchange was caught on video by other journalists who were present.
Sitting nearby was Sirley Avila Leon, who was the victim of a brutal machete attack in May of 2015 planned by Cuban state security in retaliation for her opposition activities.
Also present was Silvia Iriondo of Mothers Against Repression, who was aboard the one Brothers to the Rescue plane that made it back on February 24, 1996 the day two other planes of that same organization where shot down in a premeditated act of state terrorism ordered by Fidel and Raul Castro.
Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, the most well known opposition group in the island, released a letter supporting the Trump Administration's shift in Cuba policy and thanking President Trump for mentioning them during speech:
In my capacity as leader of the Cuban non-violent human rights defenders, the Damas de Blanco, I am honored to convey to you the warmest thanks from all the members of our organization, including our four Damas recently sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, for your kind mention of our struggle. These days, Mr. President, when most of the World responds with a deafening silence to the harassment, arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies against peaceful opponents, human rights activists and defenseless women, your words of encouragement are most welcomed.Important elements of the dissident movement in Cuba, victims of repression are supporting this change in direction and rhetoric. Time will tell if this positive turn of events signals a profound and continuing change in Cuba policy that unfolds over the years to come.