Shadow Government

Obama Plays Small Ball in Cuba

Obama's missed opportunity in Cuba.

HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22:  U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro visit during an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro visit during an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Obama’s trip to Cuba this week certainly made history, at least in the strictest sense of the term. He indeed walked off Air Force One and set foot on Cuban soil, becoming the first president to do so since 1928.  But it was hardly historic in the fullest meaning of the term — as in shock-and-awe, transformational historic.

His words had none of the forcefulness, for example of Ronald Reagan’s speech to students at Moscow State University in 1988, let alone any of the audaciousness of his remarks at Brandenberg Gate in 1987, where he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear Down This Wall!”

No, Obama played it cool — a single here, a bunt there, a stolen base. In fact, it was that minimalist approach that allowed the hoped-for White House narrative of history-in-the-making to be stepped on repeatedly by bad optics: dissidents being manhandled in the streets as the president arrived; an awkward ending to a joint press conference with Cuban dictator Raul Castro that lit up social media; and, finally, the president and his family taking in a baseball game with Castro even as Europe bled again from an Islamist terrorist attack.

Still, as a colleague put it to me, the trip “wasn’t totally demoralizing.” The regime’s repressive actions against peaceful dissidents were put on full display to the world — including a dramatic occurrence during an ESPN live shot — and Castro was exposed as a thoroughly odious figure who denies that his regime holds political prisoners.

To Obama’s credit, he did use his speech at the Teatro Nacional to talk to the Cuban people rather than at them, as he expounded on the virtues of freedom and self-determination. He hit several good notes, but the problem is that his address came with so many qualifiers and caveats so as not to offend his Cuban hosts that some Cubans may have wondered whether democracy is all it’s cracked up to be. To wit:

So here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people. The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution: America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world. Those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy. Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not.

True enough, but in a speech to a captive nation? Imagine how history would have turned out if Ronald Reagan went to the Soviet Union and said: “Well, we’re no great shakes either, so let’s just split the difference!”

The fundamental problem with the president’s approach to Cuba is that he is trying to reconcile two utterly incompatible objectives. He is at once attempting to convince the Castro regime that the United States means no harm, while at the same time trying to inspire the Cuban people to take control of their own destiny.

Now, that may make hearts in U.S. faculty lounges swoon, but it is utterly incongruent with what Cubans want to hear.

The fact is, contrary to what U.S. academics and activists will tell you, Obama does not need to apologize to the Cuban people about the United States or U.S. policy. They understand viscerally that the United States is not the enemy, but that they are victims of their own government’s incompetence and repression.

What the Cuban people want to hear is a full-throated challenge to the regime, not diplomatic circumlocutions and, “well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree” on such seminal issues as human rights and self-determination.

In the Cuban peoples’ minds the regime is the problem and, based on more than decades of experience, they have no trust it can be part of the solution.

It’s clear the administration does not want a confrontation with the regime, believing instead that disarming it with soothing rhetoric will somehow allow it to drop its guard. It is a fool’s errand.

The Castro regime is and always has been terrified of a more independent and autonomous Cuban people — and no speech from Washington, no matter how well crafted, changes that fact.

In short, President Obama had a chance to go deep on the truly historic opportunity he had before him — to dramatically alter the situation in forlorn Cuba by breaking a bit of diplomatic crockery. Instead, he preferred to play small ball, missing the chance to make a real choice between the Castro regime and the Cuban people. Which is why, despite the continuing misdirection of the administration and its most ardent cheerleaders, the miserable status quo in Cuba will continue apace.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff

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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