So How’s That Cuba Deal Going?
Raúl Castro’s demands include reparations and no more U.S. asylum for doctors who defect.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady
Feb. 8, 2015 6:36 p.m. ET78 COMMENTS
Less than two months after his "historic" outreach to Havana with a promise to "normalize relations," the U.S. commander in chief is getting the back of Raúl Castro ’s hand.
On Dec. 17, President Obama floated his plan to revise a half-century-old U.S.-Cuba policy by promising engagement. "We intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people," he said. The trouble is that as his statements in recent weeks have shown, Raúl Castro has no interest in doing things differently.
The message from Havana is that if Mr. Obama wants a Cuba legacy it will have to be on Cuba’s terms. That means he will have to go down in history as the U.S. president who prolonged the longest-running military dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuban President, Raul Castro Photo: European Pressphoto Agency
Days before Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roberta Jacobson arrived in Havana on Jan. 21 for talks, the Cuban state newspaper Granma published the government’s list of "demands" for normalizing relations. One of them was that the U.S. recognize Cuban state-run community groups as nongovernmental organizations. It did not name any, but the notorious "committees to defend the revolution," which exist to enforce repression by spying on the neighbors, come to mind. Also on the list published in Granma was a demand that the U.S. end its asylum program for Cuban doctors who escape while serving in third-world countries where they have been sent to work for slave wages.
A few days later, at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Belén, Costa Rica, the 83-year-old little brother of Fidel reiterated some of his other demands. He said that relations would not be normalized unless Washington unilaterally lifts the embargo, returns Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, ceases radio and television transmissions beamed into Cuba and makes reparations for the half-century-long embargo.
Mr. Obama may want to give back Guantanamo as his critics claim. But it is not clear that he could do so without congressional approval. He definitely needs Congress to lift the embargo and there’s not a snowball’s chance in Havana that Congress is going to accept any such thing as embargo reparations, let alone pay them. Raúl Castro knows this, so in other words he’s telling Mr. Obama to take a hike.
But Mr. Obama wants to be friends with the military dictatorship. To prove it, he has promised to use his executive pen to streamline the permit process for so-called educational and cultural travel by Americans to the island. The military owns the tourism industry and more American tourists will mean more dollars going into its coffers.
No problem there for the Castros. But don’t expect any quid pro quo that requires a softening of the totalitarian machine. That much was made clear in the days following Mr. Obama’s speech.
Mr. Obama said that Cuba had pledged to release 53 prisoners of conscience in exchange for three Cubans serving lengthy sentences in the U.S. for espionage. This was supposed to be proof that Havana would behave more reasonably if only Washington would show more humility.
Snookered again. The spies were released but Havana did not keep its side of the bargain until pressure mounted weeks later, and not even then in any true sense. When the names of the prisoners finally were made public, the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation found that about a dozen of them had been released before the "swap" was even announced. Some had completed or were close to completing their sentences and were already scheduled for release.
Marcelino Abreu Bonora was on the list. He had been released in October. He was rearrested on Dec. 26 and spent two weeks in a solitary punishment cell before being released again in mid-January. His crime was holding a sign that said "change." There were some 200 political arrests in the four weeks following Mr. Obama’s speech.
Cuba has never granted freedom to prisoners of conscience, as the treatment of the 75 dissidents rounded up during the "Black Spring" of 2003 shows. Sixty-three of them were exiled. The 12 who refused to leave are sporadically detained and denied the right to travel abroad.
Mr. Obama says Cuba can help the U.S. fight drug trafficking. Cuba certainly knows the business. It runs Venezuelan intelligence these days—and Caracas is home to some of the region’s most notorious drug capos. But who can believe that Havana would interfere with the cash flow the trade generates for its closest revolutionary ally?
Cuba’s top demand is that it be taken off the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism. But in 2013 it was caught running weapons for North Korea. It is an Iranian ally. Last week the Colombian military intercepted 16 Russian-made antiaircraft rocket launchers bound for the Cuba-supported Colombia guerrilla group FARC.
No one doubts that Mr. Obama is hard up for friends these days, but courting Cuba makes him look desperate.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com