FOR ALL the high expectations, and deep anxieties, that surround the U.S.-Cuba thaw that President Obama announced two months ago, the reality is that the process is still in its very early days. The two countries have not agreed even on one of the simpler bilateral issues: opening full-fledged embassies in each other’s capitals. Cuban President Raúl Castro sounded an ominous note by hinting that complete normalization might depend on such far-fetched demands as the hand-over of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay or reparations for the U.S. embargo.
U.S. political leaders would be well advised not to succumb to, or foster, exuberance about the transformation in economic relations that might be at hand — much less about the pending transformation of the Cuban regime. Official contacts must not sugarcoat or lend undeserved legitimacy to a dynastic dictatorship that remains one of the most repressive on the planet.
Consider the just-concluded visits to Havana by a House delegation led by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and a three-senator group made of Democrats Mark R. Warner (Va.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) — the tone and tenor of which were too starry-eyed by half. Ms. Klobuchar gushed that she and her colleagues “walked freely around the streets and talked with anyone we wanted,” apparently oblivious to the political surveillance within which those “free” conversations occurred. Ms. McCaskill posted charming photos of vintage cars on her Instagram account; nothing depressing, like images of Cuba’s poverty, though.
Both delegations found time to meet with regime officials, including a prestige-enhancing sit-down with Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Mr. Castro’s designated successor. Yet neither saw dissidents on the island, many of whom already feel understandably concerned that Mr. Obama negotiated with the Castro regime over their heads. Instead, the U.S. lawmakers met with unidentified “civil society” representatives. This contrasts with the trip last month led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) , which did include a session with prominent regime opponents .
After that delegation left Cuba on Jan. 19, the government announced it would delay any more such visits for a while because of unspecified scheduling issues. The fact that the House and Senate groups arrived as planned, and did not see dissidents, suggested to some critics of the new policy an understanding that Capitol Hill’s access to the island now depends on avoiding dissidents — who, too, would gain prestige from meeting high-ranking Americans. All of the members of Congress deny such an arrangement and told us they brought up human rights with regime officials.
Yet the timing, and the appearances it created, should remind everyone that the Castro regime remains the gatekeeper to the island, leverage it can be counted on to use for every possible advantage, political or economic. No one, not even a politically powerful American visitor, is immune to being exploited by the Cuban propaganda machine; no one is truly free on that island. U.S. lawmakers need to understand that, fully, and behave accordingly.