SINCE DEC. 17, President Obama has been engaged in a sweeping overhaul of U.S.-Cuba relations at the heart of which are conciliatory gestures by Washington; more travel by dollar-spending Americans to the impoverished island; a pledge to deal with differences, including on human rights, through diplomatic channels rather than confrontation; and a presidential call for the end of the U.S. trade embargo. In calling for “reform” in Cuba this week at the United Nations, Mr. Obama made no use of such provocative terms as “liberty” or “democracy.”
President Raúl Castro’s regime, by contrast, “seems to have done little beyond reopening its Washington embassy,” as The Post’s Karen DeYoung reported Wednesday. Mr. Castro’s son-in-law, an army general, still controls the dollar-earning tourist industry, the Internet largely remains unavailable to ordinary Cubans, and, most important, dissidents remain subject to arbitrary arrest and detention — including several snatched off the streets for daring to approach Pope Francis during his recent visit.
Mr. Castro has in fact appeared to pocket Mr. Obama’s concessions — and raise his demands. His speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday read like one of his brother Fidel’s old jeremiads from the 1960s, complete with a call for Puerto Rican independence and condemnation of alleged NATO encroachment on Russia. More pertinent for Mr. Obama’s normalization project, Mr. Castro cast bilateral reconciliation as a long, complex, process which can only reach fruition once the United States ends the “economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba,” and the “return” of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. These conditions, as Mr. Castro knows, range from politically difficult (lifting the embargo) to impossible (Guantanamo). The true practical relevance of lifting the embargo, at a time when it already exempts food and medicine, and travelers from the United States brought $3.5 billion worth of goods to Cuba in their luggage during 2013, while Cuban Americans sent $3.1 billion cash in remittances, was not seriously discussed.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama staged yet another photo opportunity and private meeting with Mr. Castro at the U.N., after which Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, was pleased to chide the U.S. president for failing to use his executive powers even more aggressively to circumvent the embargo law. Mr. Rodríguez said: “He has not done so. I expect him to do so.”
When it began, Mr. Obama billed his opening to the Castro regime as a more effective means of bettering the lot of the island’s impoverished and repressed 11 million people. So far, it’s raised their hopes, but not their prospects. Perhaps it’s time Mr. Obama started reciprocating the Cubans’ offer of advice and tell Mr. Castro more plainly what he expects Havana to do, starting with allowing the Cuban people freedom of speech, press and assembly. After all, Mr. Castro’s executive powers, accumulated over more than half a century, are much, much more extensive than Mr. Obama’s.