President Obama and the first lady will make a historic trip to Cuba next month, the White House announced Thursday, before stopping off in Argentina to meet with its recently elected president. . . . In a statement, [White House press secretary Josh Earnest] described Obama’s visit as one aimed at helping foster democratization and economic liberalization in Cuba, as well as hailing the progress that Argentina has made recently.
Just how does it foster democracy and liberalization to reward the Castros with a presidential visit when in recent months oppression has increased? Cuban human rights activists tell us:
Throughout 2015, there were more than 8,616 documented political arrests in Cuba. In November alone there were more than 1,447 documented political arrests, the highest monthly tally in decades. Those numbers compare to 2,074 arrests in 2010 and 4,123 in 2011. . . . According to the London-based NGO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), last year 2,000 churches were declared illegal and 100 were designated for demolition by the Castro regime. Altogether, CSW documented 2,300 separate violations of religious freedom in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014. . . . Most of the 53 political prisoners released in the months prior and after Obama’s December 2014 announcement have since been re-arrested on multiple occasions. Five have been handed new long-term prison sentences. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch noted in its new 2016 report, “Cuba has yet to allow visits to the island by the International Committee of the Red Cross or by U.N. human rights monitors, as stipulated in the December 2014 agreement with the United States.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) blasted the president: “[I]t is absolutely shameful that Obama is rewarding the Castro’s with a visit to Cuba by a sitting American president since their reign of terror began. For more than 50 years Cubans have been fleeing the Castro regime yet the country which grants them refuge, the United States, has now decided to quite literally embrace their oppressors. There has been no progress in regards to human rights on the Castro brothers’ island gulag nor have conditions in Cuba improved since this administration began providing the regime with concession after concession.” She added, “A visit by President Obama more than one year after his unilateral concessions to the regime will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior.”
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams writes: “Why is the President visiting, given the lack of change? Because he cannot resist the photo op with Fidel Castro. It’s as simple as that.” He points out that the president won’t be permitted to meet with dissidents:
The Cuban regime . . . [knows] that Obama is dying to make this trip and get his photo with Fidel, and that gives the police state the upper hand — just as it did throughout the Obama negotiations with Cuba.
Yes, the trip could be salvaged — if Obama had a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” moment. Yes, if he directly demanded free elections, and an end to the one-party rule, and free expression, and free trade unions, and demanded that every single political prisoner be released immediately.
This visit is about the President’s vanity and search for a legacy, not about freedom and human rights for the people of Cuba. And that’s a disgrace.
It is also part of a pattern in the president’s treatment of the world’s worst human rights abusers — North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia — that in the guise of “engaging” them or “welcoming them into the community of nations” the president again and again refuses to stand up for dissidents, democracy advocates and religious objectors. To the contrary, he rewards their oppressors, giving them international legitimacy and demoralizing their victims.
Congress cannot stop him from going, but both houses should pass resolutions of disapproval, making it crystal clear that they do not share the president’s disregard for the victims of oppression.
UPDATE: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has sent a letter to the president urging him to reconsider. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has released a statement chastising the president for the trip, which reads in part: “It is totally unacceptable for the President of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with an historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues to be shunned. . . . To this day, we have not seen one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and trade unions in Cuba.”