A CUBAN performance artist named Tania Bruguera planned a simple event for Tuesday: She would set up a microphone in Havana’s Revolution Square and invite anyone who wished to step up and talk about the country’s future. Dozens of dissidents planned to participate under the slogan “I also demand” — which might be taken as an allusion to their exclusion from the secret normalization negotiations conducted by the Obama administration and the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro.
That the deal announced Dec. 17 by President Obama did not include any protections for Cuba’s pro-democracy activists quickly became obvious. Security forces detained Ms. Bruguera as well as several dozen other activists. The free-speech performance never took place. “I spoke to Tania Bruguera and let her know part of her performance was done,” tweeted Yoani Sánchez, an independent journalist whose husband, Reinaldo Escobar, was one of those detained. “Censorship was revealed.”
The incident should have been an embarrassment to Mr. Obama, who said that he decided to restore normal relations with Cuba in order to “do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values.” But the administration shrugged off the crackdown. On Wednesday, the State Department issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned,” the same words it uses to describe human rights violations in China, Vietnam and other countries where the United States has no leverage and plans no action. Talks on the opening of embassies will go forward.
The State Department declared that “as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions.” There was no reference to consequences in the event Havana does not comply. That’s hardly a robust stance to strike with a regime that is desperate for the economic resources that would come with expanded travel by U.S. citizens and other benefits unconditionally promised by Mr. Obama.
The president could have conditioned those measures on guarantees that free speech would be respected and peaceful dissidents left unharassed — steps that fall far short of the full establishment of democracy required by U.S. law for the lifting of the trade embargo. That would have been in keeping with Mr. Obama’s own promise in 2008 that “significant steps toward democracy” must precede a normalization of relations — and his pledge in a 2013 meeting with dissident leaders to bring them into any bargain with the regime.
Instead, the Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s “engagement.” Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.
Instead, Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as “victory” over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.