ON FRIDAY, President Obama unveiled a Presidential Decision Directive trumpeting further overtures to the Cuban government designed to make the thaw he announced on Dec. 17, 2014, “irreversible.” That would imply “regardless of results” — which so far have been paltry, at least in terms of freedom and prosperity for Cuba’s long-suffering people. Indeed, Cubans are “worse off now than how they imagined their future” when normalization began, opposition journalist Yoani Sanchez noted recently.
The Castro regime has arrested almost as many peaceful opponents so far this year (8,505) as it did in all of 2015 (8,616), according to the nongovernmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. The ranks of the repressed include dissident lawyer Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who was thrown in prison Sept. 23. His law firm was also ransacked and documents were taken. Havana’s municipal government has just banned new licenses for private restaurants and instructed existing ones that it will start enforcing onerous taxes and regulations more tightly. It was, Reuters reported, “a new sign that Cuba’s Communist-run government is hesitant to further open up to private business in a country where it still controls most economic activity,” following similar retrenchment in agriculture and transportation last year.
The economy is stagnating due to the Castro regime’s perennial mismanagement and cutbacks in aid from Cuba’s chaotic patron, Venezuela. In July, Cuba’s economy minister warned that fuel consumption would have to be cut by nearly a third in the rest of the year, along with restrictions in state investments and imports. Cuba’s cash crunch helps explain why sales of U.S. goods (those permitted under long-standing humanitarian exceptions to the embargo) are running well below what they were before the thaw. Some 89,000 Cubans have fled to the United States since the policy began.
Havana’s response to Mr. Obama’s latest olive branch was to demand more concessions. Mr. Obama’s directive “does not hide the purpose of promoting changes in the political, economic and social order,” top diplomat Josefina Vidal asserted. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Vidal led a large nationally televised rally at Havana University to protest the “genocidal” embargo, part of a broad anti-U.S. propaganda campaign timed to coincide with Mr. Obama’s announcement.
An optimistic view of these developments would be that the administration’s strategy is working: Frightened by the prospect of freer business activity, and ideologically challenged in the absence of a Yanqui enemy, Cuba’s leaders must clamp down on the former and invent the latter — and round up the usual dissident suspects. That may be true; but recent events also show the tension between the president’s twin goals of doing business with the Cuban government as a legitimate equal and relieving the misery of the Cuban people, which is caused by their government. Even on the ideological defensive, the Cuban regime retains the capacity to resist change and to punish citizens who seek to bring it about.
We have never opposed a thaw in relations, only Mr. Obama’s decision — contrary to his earlier promise — to exclude from the process all those Cubans who have been bravely fighting for increased freedom. Now Mr. Obama is giving the regime a green light: No amount of repression can derail his policy. That is a strange and unfortunate message.