Shadow Government

Obama’s Open Hand Meets Cuba’s Clenched Fist

The president is counting on his gestures of openness being reciprocated — but he doesn't know the Castros.


Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker became the second Cabinet member to visit Cuba, following on Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip in August to raise the flag at the newly rechristened U.S. Embassy in Havana.

The visit came on the heels of President Obama’s second meeting with Cuban dictator Raul Castro — most recently on the margins of the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting — since he announced his decision to normalize relations last December. Before that reunion, the White House had announced a further lessening of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on the eve of Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba.

Then, to cap things off, the administration leaked to the Associated Press that it is considering abstaining from the annual U.N. vote condemning U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba.

Say this about the Obama administration: they are certainly all-in in their desire to convince the Castro regime they want to turn the page on the antagonistic relationship that dates back to 1959.

There is only one problem, however. The Castro regime has shown an utter lack of reciprocity.

Indeed, no sooner had Castro met with Obama than he took to the floor of the U.N. General Assembly to unleash a typical jeremiad against the United States, chockfull of hoary Cold War rhetoric denouncing the embargo, demanding reparations (to the tune of $1 trillion) for the embargo, ordering the return of the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, and calling for Puerto Rican independence (which Puerto Ricans do not even want.)

Fresh off that time-warp performance, Cuba then introduced, for the 23rd straight year, a U.N. resolution demanding the unilateral lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Don’t think the discordance isn’t being noticed.

In a scathing editorial the Washington Post noted, “Mr. Castro has in fact appeared to pocket Mr. Obama’s concessions — and raise his demands.” Another in the Wall Street Journal asserted, “The U.S. President has given [Castro] diplomatic recognition, easier travel by Americans to the island, and returned some spies. But Mr. Castro now says he won’t make any concessions until the U.S. lifts the trade embargo and returns Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.”

Moreover, in a recent news story, the Post reported that, in response to U.S. concessions, the Castro regime “seems to have done little beyond reopening its Washington embassy.” And that, despite all the hype, “No new U.S. companies have been allowed to establish a presence in Cuba or to hire Cuban workers.”

In an eye-opening detail, the Post also quoted an unnamed administration official who said that those in Congress who are promoting legislation to lift sanctions “are desperate for gestures” from the Cuban government, “and they aren’t getting those gestures…. There’s been no real give at all.”

Meanwhile, the esteemed rights expert Nat Hentoff, who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote, “The Cuban government’s response at each stage in the process of reconciliation has been a steady escalation in the arbitrary harassment, abuse, arrest and detention of Cuba’s pro-democracy dissidents.”

It is not as though the Castro regime’s intransigence should shock anyone. After all, with the Obama administration making all the moves, why wouldn’t Castro pocket them and demand more?

But there’s something deeper to it than that. Several months ago, I predicted that in his zeal to normalize relations, Obama would have more problems with the Castro regime than he would with critics in Congress, because it is the regime’s very nature. The president has fundamentally misread Cuba’s geriatric rulers; they will never compromise on their obsession with absolute power for a mess of baubles and beads from the United States. In an October essay for the Real Clear World, the Cuban American writer Carlos Alberto Montaner sums it up this way, “[Obama] is incapable of understanding why Raul bites that hand instead of gripping it. He doesn’t know that old Stalinists kill and die with their fangs always sharp and ready. It’s all part of the revolutionary nature.”

Still, there will be supporters of the president’s policy who believe it is working by not only “proving” that the obstacle to better relations is Cuba and not the United States, but that the Cuban regime actually “fears” closer U.S. engagement and therefore it is incumbent to press on. But that is an academic point of little practical value. It may make for spirited conversation at some diplomatic soirée, but it does nothing to help the Cuban people reclaim their dignity and future. The result of five decades of global indulgence of the Castro regime is that no one, least of all a U.S. president bearing gifts, is going to force this regime to do anything it does not want to do.

To be sure, U.S. isolation didn’t work to change the regime’s behavior — it was undermined by an active lobby against it — but neither will kindness. However, at least in the former situation, no U.S. flag flew over that captive nation, legitimizing the Cuban people’s oppressors.

Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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