Tougher on Cuba: President Obama speaks up at the right time.

Friday, March 26, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA issued a statement Wednesday that forthrightly described what has become of his effort to reach out to the Castro regime in Cuba. "Instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era," he said, "Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist."

It was a good moment for the president to speak out. Cubans have been stirred, and the regime has been rattled, by a new movement of hunger strikers. On Feb. 23, the imprisoned Afro-Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after refusing food for 83 days. The next day, opposition activist Guillermo Fariñas began a strike, demanding relief for 26 political prisoners needing medical attention. He is now reportedly in a hospital near his home in the central Cuba town of Santa Clara and is being fed intravenously. If he dies, other dissidents are ready to replace him.

The response of Raúl and Fidel Castro to the strikers and the international protests they prompted has been uncompromising. They refused to prevent Mr. Zapata's death; last week, a protest in Havana by the Ladies in White, a group of relatives of political prisoners that includes Mr. Zapata's mother, was violently broken up by police and pro-regime thugs.

Mr. Obama noted that he had sought "a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba." Though he didn't renounce that goal, he said, "Today I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people."

Those were the right words; what remains to be seen is whether -- and when -- the administration will follow up on them. Last year the State Department effectively froze $40 million appropriated by Congress to support democracy in Cuba while conducting a review of programs launched by the Bush administration. In official and unofficial contacts, the Castros have been demanding the end of the programs, which have channeled aid to the families of dissidents and provided training and equipment -- including cellphones, laptops and Internet connections -- to civil society groups. An American contractor working in that effort, Alan P. Gross, was arrested by Cuba in December and has been imprisoned -- some would say held hostage -- ever since.

After some sharp questioning by congressional Republicans, the State Department notified Congress this month of its plans to spend $20 million of the money; officials say the programs have been revised so that more is spent on social and civil society groups inside Cuba, and less on political operations outside of the country. That sounds reasonable -- but now Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has placed his own hold on the funding. A spokesman says he has "a list of questions on the policies, purposes, costs, benefits and modalities of the programs" and that the "review will not be prolonged." We hope that's the case: This is the wrong time for the United States to be holding up support for Cuba's courageous dissidents.

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