FIDEL CASTRO’s demise provoked an unlikely but entirely understandable reaction among younger Cubans: hope. As the Communist regime has promised and then largely failed to deliver on economic reforms and greater freedoms in recent years, many have supposed that resistance from the revolution’s founder was holding back change. Now, it is said, Raúl Castro, who formally took over from his brother nearly a decade ago, will have no excuse not to break up state monopolies, allow greater foreign investment, and give Cubans space to innovate and speak freely. “The vast majority of the population of the island, desiring change, is expectant,” wrote commentator Peter Campos in the Cuba-based online newspaper 14ymedio.
Unfortunately, Mr. Castro has made clear that his aim is to change the state-run economy just enough to save it, and the totalitarian political system not at all. He negotiated a diplomatic opening with the United States two years ago not, as President Obama hoped, to accelerate reforms, but to collect for the state a new stream of hard-currency revenue from U.S. tourists and companies. Cubans who cheered the renewal of relations because they expected it would improve their lives have been bitterly disappointed — and those who actively work for greater political freedom have suffered more rather than less repression.
These facts ought to inform the charting of Cuba policy by the new U.S. admininistration and Congress. Mr. Obama stretched executive powers to offer concessions to the Castro regime while demanding little in return. Most of the benefit has gone to institutions controlled by the Castros, such as the state-run tourism industry. U.S. military and police officials have courted their Cuban counterparts, often overlooking their records of human rights abuses.
A better policy would align itself with the hopes of ordinary Cubans and the legitimate demands of the island’s pro-democracy movements. That does not necessarily mean reversing the renewal of diplomatic relations and relaxed restrictions on the movement of people and goods; most Cubans still want that. But it should mean that official exchanges with the regime, and any concessions that benefit it, should be tied to tangible reforms that benefit the public: greater Internet access, expansion of space for private business and tolerance of critical speech and assembly by such groups as the Ladies in White.
President-elect Donald Trump, who made contradictory statements about Mr. Obama’s opening during the campaign, hinted at such a policy over the weekend. A statement on Saturday condemned Fidel Castro as a “brutal dictator” and said the new administration “will do all it can to ensure that the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.” On Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
It’s refreshing to see the incoming president link good relations with the United States to progress on human rights. But it would be perverse to apply that precept only to Cuba. Mr. Trump has appeared willing, even eager, to excuse repression by other autocratic regimes, including in Egypt, Turkey and Russia. Cubans are not the only people who deserve U.S. solidarity with their struggles for basic rights.
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