THE WHITE House is said to be thrilled that President Obama will attend a baseball game when he visits Cuba two weeks from now: The matchup between the Tampa Bay Rays and a Cuban team will provide a splashy exhibition of the warming relations with the Castro regime. There’s still no word, however, about a promised presidential meeting with Cuban dissidents, the brave women and men whose fight for democratic freedoms in one of the world’s most repressive countries is less glamorous — and more dangerous — than Major League Baseball.
So let’s be clear: Notwithstanding Mr. Obama’s expectation that Cuba will “be fun,” his visit will be an ignoble failure if he does not have a meaningful encounter with the island’s most important human rights activists.
The risk of such an outcome seems to be rising. Administration officials who said Mr. Obama would choose whom he met when he is on the island are now conceding that Cuban officials are trying to prevent him from seeing true opposition leaders. Instead they are proposing that Mr. Obama gather with regime-approved members of “civil society,” perhaps with a couple of moderate government critics mixed in. The disagreement reportedly contributed to a decision by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to cancel a preparatory trip to Havana last week.
The Castros’ resistance is understandable. A direct meeting between Mr. Obama and leaders such as Guillermo Fariñas, the winner of the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights, or the Ladies in White, another winner, would give a big boost to their cause. It would legitimize their demands for free speech, free assembly and freedom for political prisoners and put pressure on the regime to respond to them. It would give hope to Cubans that Mr. Obama’s engagement with their country might bring about long-overdue change.
What the Castros hope is that Mr. Obama instead will focus on baseball and new U.S. steps to bolster the Cuban economy, such as allowing use of the dollar. That would divert attention from the fact that repression in Cuba has not eased in the 15 months since the diplomatic thaw began; in fact, it has gotten worse. Dissidents who tried to meet with Pope Francis during his recent visit were detained or beaten. Will those who try to approach Mr. Obama meet the same fate? Any critic who manages to get into a “civil society” meeting such as that proposed by the regime would be drowned out by its loyalists.
As so often in its dealings with the Castros, the administration sacrificed leverage by announcing the presidential visit before the terms for a meeting with dissidents were agreed on. That makes it harder to insist on the gathering that should take place: a small, focused dialogue with internationally recognized advocates of democracy and human rights. Still, if the White House pushes as hard to see Mr. Fariñas and the Ladies in White as it has for the Tampa Bay Rays, it should succeed. If not, Mr. Obama can and should call off his trip.
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