PRESIDENT OBAMA boasted about his opening to Cuba once again in his farewell speech on Tuesday, but as we have noted repeatedly, that policy has yielded paltry results so far, both in economic terms and, most important, in terms of greater freedom for the Cuban people. Yet it has conferred greater political legitimacy and greater access to financial resources on the totalitarian Cuban regime. The latest, and perhaps final, act in Mr. Obama’s “normalization” program toward Cuba came Thursday: an agreement with Havana under which Washington granted the former’s long-standing demand to abandon a 20-year-old American policy that offered permanent residency to Cubans who manage to reach U.S. territory, even via unauthorized means.
Like Mr. Obama’s previous concessions, this one is unilateral; President Raúl Castro reciprocated only by agreeing to accept more readily the people the United States deports, not by altering the political and economic policies that impel so many to leave in the first place, or even by returning U.S. fugitives from justice whom he still harbors. Ben Rhodes, the administration’s point man on Cuba, backhandedly admitted the unbearable conditions there, and the failure of Mr. Obama’s policy to affect them, when he acknowledged to reporters that ordinary Cubans have been using cash remittances facilitated by the Obama policy to finance escape — often aboard flimsy rafts floating perilously on the Caribbean Sea. Some 100,000 Cubans have hastened to get to the United States since “normalization” began, fearing that the Obama policy would lead to precisely the immigration change that has now occurred.
Still, this particular change seems more necessary and proper than previous ones. Existing policy, known as “wet foot, dry foot,” because the United States sent back Cuban migrants unlucky enough to be intercepted at sea, was as logically consistent as that derisive nickname implies. It not only induced discontented Cubans to make a dangerous journey, but also relieved pressure on the regime to meet their legitimate demands at home. In recent years, the policy has also led to various scams, such as Medicare fraud perpetrated by Cubans who quickly settled in South Florida and then returned to the island with ill-gotten money. Such corruption had led even some Cuban American members of Congress to suggest the end of “wet foot, dry foot”; those lawmakers’ reaction to Mr. Obama’s new policy was notably muted.
Cubans who arrive at the United States will still be eligible for political asylum like all others, and we urge the incoming Trump administration to treat those claims with the generosity they deserve. U.S. policy continues to set aside 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans, an unusually high number properly reflective of Cuba’s unusually repressive system. Even as the White House portrayed Thursday’s announcement as part of the “normalization” of the “immigration relationship” with Cuba — Mr. Obama proudly noted that “we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries” — the facts on the ground and, alas, on the high seas suggest a different lesson. Migration patterns between a totalitarian state and a free one can never truly be “normal.” What needs normalization, urgently, is life in Cuba.
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