In July 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with two prominent Cuban dissidents, Elizardo Sanchez and Guillermo Farinas. Both men had been supporters of the Castros—Sanchez as an academic, Farinas as a soldier—but had come to realize the real brutal, authoritarian nature of their Communist regime. Farinas, for example, spoke of the moment of clarity he had the first time he read Animal Farm during the 1980s, in Russian because he was in the Soviet Union receiving specialized military training.
Sanchez and Farinas painted a grim picture of life in Cuba, which they said had become “a big jail” since 1959. They described how the Castros have a comprehensive apparatus of oppression that exploits economic control, political repression, and propaganda to control each and every Cuban citizen. Growing up in Cuba, they said, meant choosing between becoming part of the repression, pretending to be mentally ill, abandoning your homeland, or confronting the regime, in which case you risked being killed, jailed, or beaten.
My family knows this hard truth about Cuba all too well. My father was imprisoned and tortured by Batista, and my aunt was imprisoned and tortured by Castro. Both fled for America and for freedom.
According to Sanchez and Farinas, Raul and Fidel Castro remain the implacable enemies of the United States. They are constantly thinking of ways to harm America—they are evil, and we cannot make a deal with an evil regime. The goal of the Castros, they explained, was to copy “Putinismo,” or the tricks and deceptions the Russian strongman had used to fool the west with the appearance of change while in reality, his authoritarian government consolidated power. Farinas cautioned that the Castros would try to get the United States to finance their “Putinist project” through the relaxation of the embargo, and that we should reject any deal that did not include real political reform.
As we now know, around the time I was interviewing Sanchez and Farinas, the Obama administration was already planning a major revision of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts in her recent book, Hard Choices, that she recommended this course of action around the time she left office.
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But just like the recent failed outreach attempts with Russia and Iran, the administration assumed they could persuade dictatorial tyrants to put the interests of their people and the international community before their own. And so this week, President Obama announced he is unilaterally undoing more than half a century of bi-partisan U.S. policy towards Cuba and reducing economic sanctions before the Castros make a single meaningful concession.
How prophetic Sanchez and Farinas were. America is, in effect, writing the check that will allow the Castros to follow Vladimir Putin’s playbook of repression.
But simply criticizing the Obama administration approach is not enough. As Sanchez and Farinas pointed out, no one can deny that the Castros have successfully exploited their enmity with the United States to enhance their reputation as revolutionary freedom fighters. And as the critics of the embargo argue, we are 50 years into the project and the Castros are still in power. Of course we should look for new ways to relieve the misery of the Cuban people—but there are better options than what the Obama administration has proposed.
First, the United States should have demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Alan Gross before we negotiated economic relief for Cuba. We celebrate his return, but it should have been beholden on the Castros to demonstrate good faith in advance of any concessions on our part. And we should not be creating incentives for other oppressive regimes to seize and ransom American citizens.
In addition, the United States should have recognized the significant pressures the Castro regime currently faces, which recall those in the late 1990s when deprived of Soviet sponsorship, their regime was threatened with economic catastrophe. Then, Hugo Chavez stepped in to save them, but now, with the impending collapse of the Venezuelan economy, disaster looms again. If the United States is to provide an economic lifeline to Cuba at this critical juncture, we might have extracted some significant concessions:
- Rather than arbitrary prisoner releases, the United States should demand significant legal reform so that the Cuban government can no longer detain its citizens—or ours—indefinitely with no process. Otherwise the 53 prisoners they are to release under the terms of this deal can simply be picked up again at the whim of the Castro regime.
- Rather than vague promises of exploring political liberalization, the United States should demand that the political opposition to the Castros be included in any and all negotiations with Cuba, so their concerns will be fully heard and their priorities addressed. Otherwise there will be no incentive for the Castro regime to engage in necessary political reforms.
- Rather than unilaterally lifting the economic embargo on Cuba, the United States should calibrate any relaxation of sanctions directly to the cessation of their repression and human rights violations. Otherwise, American dollars will flow exclusively into the Castros’ pockets while the Cuban people have no relief.
These are only a few of the many ideas I look forward to our considering when the 114th Congress convenes in January. But one area on which there is already broad, bi-partisan consensus is that President Obama’s new Cuba policy is yet another very bad deal brokered by this administration. First Russia, then Iran, now Cuba.
Raul and Fidel Castro, the men who were complicit in the Cuban Missile Crisis; the close allies of Russia, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea; and the systematic persecutors of the Cuban people, have not suddenly become our regional partners.
We do have friends in Cuba, people like Elizardo Sanchez, Guillermo Farinas, and their many colleagues in the opposition. But this misguided policy of President Obama’s does nothing to help them. On the contrary it may well strengthen the Castros and entrench a new generation of their oppressors in power unless Congress steps in to stop it.
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