PRESIDENT OBAMA’s move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in December was supposed to improve political and economic conditions for average Cubans and remove an irritant in U.S. relations with other Latin American nations, which have been pushing to end the isolation of the Castro regime. Four months later — a short time, admittedly — there is no sign of those benefits. According to Cuban human rights groups, political detentions have increased: There were more than 600 in March alone. More than 50 long-term political prisoners are still being held. Several Cuban opposition leaders are banned from leaving the country, which means they cannot attend this week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.
U.S. and Cuban officials have yet to agree on the terms for reopening embassies. But the Castro regime has nevertheless reaped some substantial gains. Raúl Castro will be welcomed to the Americas summit for the first time; Mr. Obama will shake his hand. In the coming days, Mr. Obama is likely to offer another big concession by removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of sponsors of terrorism, an act that would disregard Cuba’s continued support for Colombia’s terrorist groups, its illegal arms trading with North Korea and the sanctuary it provides American criminal JoAnne Chesimard.
As for other Latin American leaders, they are unlikely to pressure Mr. Castro on his human rights record, as White House officials predicted they would once the stigma of the U.S. diplomatic boycott was lifted. Instead, many may join in an ambush of Mr. Obama being orchestrated by Mr. Castro’s closest ally. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claims he will arrive in Panama with 10 million signatures of people protesting U.S. sanctions against his government; his ludicrous but loud propaganda campaign has won support even from supposed U.S. allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
In vain, U.S. officials have been pointing out that the sanctions are targeted and well justified, aimed at Venezuelan officials complicit in the killing of peaceful demonstrators and jailing of opposition leaders. Seizing on boilerplate legal language in the sanctions order describing Venezuela as a national security threat, Mr. Maduro is once again raising the absurd specter of a U.S. invasion as a way of distracting attention from the calamitous economic crisis his government has fostered. With the Castros’ support, Mr. Maduro will portray himself — rather than the Venezuelan and Cuban political prisoners — as the summit’s star victim.
Mr. Obama should not allow this perversion of the truth to stand. He can call attention to the real heroes of Latin America by meeting with the members of the Cuban and Venezuelan opposition who will be attending civil society gatherings at the summit and endorsing their agendas for peaceful and democratic change. He should ask Mr. Santos and other Latin American leaders why they are ignoring the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a treaty that should compel them to act against regimes that violate democratic norms. Venezuela, a signatory to the treaty, is a clear case; Cuba, which is not a signatory, shames them all with its cost-free admission to what was once a community of democracies.