Hotels and Wi-Fi in Cuba Now, Human Rights, Eventually

President Obama may have scored major diplomatic and commercial wins in Cuba, but unresolved tensions over human rights could set a chill over warming ties between Washington and Havana.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro arrive for an exposition 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro arrive for an exposition 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.

President Barack Obama made a historic trip to Cuba this week to highlight the achievements of his policy of engagement with Havana, and accelerate the process of normalizing relations during the 10 months remaining in his presidency. The White House had hoped to mark the trip with announcements of new government-to-government agreements and commercial deals that would demonstrate that the engagement is well on its way to paying dividends. But despite the fact that a number of accords were signed and deals concluded, it was human rights — the most intractable issue between the United States and Cuba — that stole headlines.

Normalizing relations is not going to be easy. Or, as Cubans say when they talk about the hardships of everyday life, “No es facil.” Obama has said repeatedly that he doesn’t expect change to come “overnight,” but as he told ABC News anchor David Muir while the two men strolled through Old Havana, “change is going to happen here.” The United States will not be the agent of that change, but by normalizing relations, both diplomatic and commercial, the president said he hoped to “encourage and facilitate Cubans themselves to bring about change.”

When Obama announced his planned trip in February, Republican critics predictably blasted him for rewarding Cuba with a presidential visit when, they claimed, Cuba had done nothing to earn it. That’s exactly the same criticism they leveled against the president when he announced his opening to Cuba in December 2014. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) called it “unacceptable” for the president to “reward a dictatorial regime” with a visit when Cuba’s human rights record has been getting worse, not better.

Critics notwithstanding, Obama has not ignored human rights. From the outset of the reengagement, he has emphasized his commitment to the issue, raising it in both of his prior conversations with Raúl Castro — at the Panama Summit of the Americas last April and the U.N. General Assembly in September. One of the diplomatic “working groups,” led by Tom Malinowski, the State Department’s assistant secretary for human rights and democracy, and Pedro Luis Pedroso, the Cuban deputy director of multilateral affairs and law at the ministry of foreign affairs, is trying to advance normalization by focusing on human rights — although to date, it has met just once, and the two sides did little more than recite their contrasting views.

What propelled human rights to the forefront during Obama’s trip was the arrest, just hours before he landed in Cuba, of several dozen members of the Ladies in White, a dissident organization founded in 2003 by the female relatives of political prisoners. Last Sunday, with hundreds of international journalists camped out in Havana awaiting the president’s arrival, the Ladies in White had an unprecedented audience for their weekly ritual. When confronted by pro-government counter-demonstrators on their march, they lay down in the street and went limp. The police hauled them away while journalists snapped photographs. Inevitably, coverage of Obama’s arrival was juxtaposed with the story of women being dragged away by the police.

“Cuba arrests dozens of human rights protesters before Obama’s arrival,” read the headline in USA Today. “As Obama Arrives, Cuba Tightens Grip on Dissent,” read the New York Times. “Despite Obama visit, global spotlight, Havana cracks down on dissidents,” wrote the Miami Herald. Not an auspicious beginning.

Even then, the human rights theme might have receded, had it not been for the joint news conference Obama and Raúl Castro held after their private meeting. Obama persuaded a reluctant Castro to take a few questions from reporters, and then called on Cuban-American Jim Acosta of CNN, notorious for asking blunt questions. Unaccustomed to being grilled by an adversarial press, Castro was obviously annoyed when Acosta asked, “Why [do] you have Cuban political prisoners? And why don’t you release them?” Castro testily denied there were any political prisoners in Cuba, and demanded that Acosta name them. Later in the news conference, still irritated, Castro returned to the topic, declaring, “The human rights issue should not be politicized.”

The tense exchange ensured that the disagreement on human rights would lead the coverage of the presidents’ bilateral meeting, eclipsing the progress they made on issues of mutual interest like global health and counter-narcotics cooperation. On Tuesday, as promised, Obama met with 13 civil society activists, almost all of whom are dissidents, including several who were among those arrested just before the president’s arrival.

The high point of the presidential visit was Obama’s speech to the Cuban people, broadcast live from the newly renovated Grand Theater. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he said early in his address. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” The United States would no longer try to impose change on Cuba, he promised, but stood ready to support and assist changes undertaken by the Cuban people themselves.

On balance, the president’s trip was a success. The Treasury and Commerce Departments set the stage with a fourth round of regulatory reforms allowing U.S. residents to travel on self-directed, people-to-people educational tours, and ending the prohibition of the use of dollars in international financial transactions involving Cuba, thus making travel and commerce far simpler.

During the trip, the two governments signed bilateral agreements on maritime safety and agricultural cooperation, and made progress on several others. U.S. companies Starwood Hotels & Resorts, General Electric, and Google, announced new commercial agreements, and Major League Baseball used the exhibition game between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays as an opportunity to resume talks with Cuba on allowing Cuban players to play in the United States.

Starwood will refurbish and manage several hotels in the country, as Cubans try to cope with the tsunami of U.S. visitors descending on them since the easing of the embargo’s travel restrictions. General Electric plans to sell Cuba equipment in the health care and energy sectors. Google is offering to help expand Wi-Fi and broadband service across the island.

But building commercial ties and expanding people-to-people connections through freer travel does not translate directly into political liberalization. But these linkages will reinforce important changes that are already underway in Cuba. Since Raúl Castro became president, more Cubans have been able to open their own businesses, travel freely abroad, openly practice their religion, buy or sell their houses, purchase a cell phone and a personal computer, and more openly express criticism of Cuba’s contemporary reality in blogs, books, magazines, music, and art. These are all threads in the tapestry of human rights, and Obama’s opening to Cuba has strengthened them.

We should not underestimate the symbolic power of a U.S. president coming to Cuba in friendship, declaring the Cold War at an end, and pledging to respect the Cuban people’s right to determine their own future. Respect for Cuba’s sovereignty and independence has been sorely lacking among U.S. presidents in the century since Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders stormed up San Juan Hill, ended Spanish colonial rule, and turned Cuba into a virtual possession of the United States. For a president to acknowledge that troubled history and offer to move beyond it to a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation was truly historic, and a big step toward a future in which Cubans can freely determine their own destiny.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff

William M. LeoGrande is professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

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