PRESIDENT OBAMA said he decided to normalize relations with Cuba because “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.” So it’s important to know the reaction of those Cubans who have put their lives on the line to fight for democracy and human rights. Many have supported engagement and opposed the U.S. embargo. But they are now pretty much unanimous in saying that the way Mr. Obama has gone about this is a mistake.
Actually, “mistake” is the polite word used by Berta Soler of the Ladies in White, an astonishingly courageous group of women who march each week in support of political prisoners. “Betrayal” was the term used by several others, who asked why Mr. Obama had chosen to lift economic restrictions and dispatch an ambassador without requiring the “significant steps toward democracy” he once said must precede liberalization.
Guillermo Fariñas, the general director of the dissidents’ United Anti-Totalitarian Front, told reporters in Havana that Mr. Obama had promised in a November 2013 meeting with himself and Ms. Soler that any U.S. action on Cuba “would be consulted with civil society and the nonviolent opposition. Obviously this didn’t happen . . . they didn’t take into account Cuban democrats.”
The negative response from the people whom Mr. Obama portrays as the beneficiaries of his initiative is one reason to question his contention that Cuba should be treated like China and Vietnam, two Communist nations with which the United States normalized diplomatic and economic relations decades ago. The United States was not able to join with opposition movements in those countries in demanding democratic reforms as part of a normalization process because, at the time, such movements barely existed in either place. In Cuba’s case, the opportunity was there.
Engagement with China and Vietnam also offered huge economic and geopolitical benefits that don’t exist in the case of Cuba, an impoverished island whose main interest to the United States is the freedom and prosperity of its 11 million people. In the past, the Castro regime has hosted Soviet nuclear missiles and sponsored terrorism elsewhere in the region, and it still harbors American criminals. But its worst behavior has been the repression of its own people, which has repeatedly driven waves of refugees to the Florida straits.
But even if the analogy were apt, we would argue that Mr. Obama should have learned and applied some of the hard lessons of normalization with China and Vietnam — most notably that engagement doesn’t automatically promote freedom. When the United States debated extending “most-favored-nation” trading status to China, we shared in what was then the conventional wisdom: Economic engagement would inevitably lead, over time, to political reform inside that Communist dictatorship. President Bill Clinton argued that no autocracy could control the relatively new tool of connection known as the Internet, certainly not while hoping to foster international trade and investment. Travel, openness, exposure to the American example — all this would, inexorably if gradually, push China to liberalize.
But the men who run China had other ideas. They were determined to reap the fruits of foreign investment and trade — for themselves and their families, first, but also for their country — without ceding power. So far, confounding expectations, they have succeeded. The Chinese standard of living has risen, and Chinese enjoy far more personal freedom than they did under Mao — to choose where to live, say, or whom to marry. But in the past decade, political freedom in China has declined — there is less freedom of speech, of the press, of cultural expression. More political prisoners have been locked up and tortured. Tens of thousands of censors keep tight control over the Internet.
The same is true in Vietnam: more foreign investment, less political and religious freedom, more bloggers in prison. And these are not anomalies: In the years that Mr. Obama has been in office, freedom has receded across the globe — without much protest or response from his administration.
What is the right reaction to this? Not to turn away from engagement, which would be impossible and also, in our view, wrong: It is unquestionably good that trade has helped lift many ordinary Chinese into relative prosperity. Rather, practice engagement intelligently; instead of simply assuming that it will help promote freedom, take steps to increase the likelihood that it will do so.
In Cuba’s case, that means listening to the brave freedom fighters Mr. Obama spurned. Mr. Obama’s prescription was not the only alternative to what he saw as the failed policy of the past half-century. Opposition leaders from throughout the island have agreed on four immediate demands to put before the government: the release of political prisoners; the end of repression against human rights and pro-democracy groups; the ratification of international covenants on human rights; and the recognition of Cuban civil society groups.
Mr. Obama could have linked a step-by-step normalization with Cuba to the regime’s satisfaction of these steps, which stop far short of introducing democracy. Instead he settled for the release of 53 political prisoners — or about half the number that Cuban human rights activists say are held — and a vague promise of greater access to the Internet.
That leaves Congress with an opportunity and an obligation to hold the Castro regime accountable. Currently, legislation allows the president to lift the economic embargo only if full democratic elections are held and a free-market economic system introduced. Under Mr. Obama’s policy, which aims to avoid the regime’s collapse, that outcome is not likely. So Congress could consider whether to link the Cuban opposition’s agenda to a partial lifting of U.S. sanctions, or perhaps to some of the measures Mr. Obama is contemplating.
If U.S. policy is really to be revised and refocused on helping the Cuban people, it would be well to promote the changes that their citizen leaders are seeking — not just the ones sought by their totalitarian rulers.
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