So Barack Obama went to Havana, the first time in almost ninety years that a sitting American president visited Cuba, and the first time in more than fifty that the Cuban government would even allow it.
On Monday, his first full day down there, he said he spoke “frankly” to President Raul Castro about human rights behind closed doors. Most likely he did. But then the two men emerged for a chummy joint press conference. It looked a little unseemly, as if Obama was willing to whitewash the Cuban dictatorship in front of the cameras.
It matters, and it matters a lot. If Cuban dissidents think the United States government doesn’t care about them, that it only cares about diplomatic relations and business deals with the dictatorship, they’re more likely to lose hope and give up. It’s a lot harder to overthrow or reform a regime that’s backed by the United States that one that is not.
But if they see that the United States government does care about them and their problems, if they know that the United States will put pressure on the regime to get its boot off their necks, they’ll keep on keeping on. The government, not the dissidents, will clearly be on the wrong side of history.
Tuesday was different. Obama gave a speech that was broadcast live on Cuban television to 11 million people. He spoke in the Great Theater of Havana, built in 1838 when Cuba was a rich country, long before the communist bulldozer immiserated the overwhelming majority. This was his chance to show everyone whose side he’s on, and he took it.
“We should not ignore the very real differences we have about how we organize our governments, our economies and our societies,” he said. “Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state. The United States is founded on the rights of the individual.”
Indeed. In Cuba, only the state has rights. Individuals are treated as the property of the state the way slaves were treated as the property of the plantation.
“To President Castro,” Obama said, “I want you to know that I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”
Castro should fear them, actually. No communist government has ever survived a free and open multi-party election. Even so, it was the right thing to say. Cuba will survive free and open elections. Cuba will thrive with free and open elections. It was once a rich nation. It has far more in common with Eastern Europe in the waning days of the Cold War than it has with failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s still ailing, though, the way East Germany was ailing when the Berlin Wall still slashed through what is now Germany’s capital.
"In the United States," Obama said, "we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami."
Two years ago, he said he would only visit Cuba if he could confidently say “we’re seeing some progress in liberty and freedom. If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo.”
Well, we’re not seeing much progress. He is more or less validating the status quo, but he also kicked back against it. What happens to the status quo from here is anyone’s guess.
Most of Havana is in an advanced state of decay and collapse, as if it had been carpet-bombed from the air and abandoned. Only it isn’t abandoned. People actually live in the rubblescape.
Most foreign visitors avoid the vast slums. They stay in the tourist bubble. The refurbished part of Old Havana is really quite pleasant nowadays, but it’s just that. A bubble.
A single tidied-up corner wasn’t good enough for the first visiting American president in almost nine decades, so government workers painted over a huge number of rotting buildings during the last couple of weeks. They repaved roads and filled potholes. They could have done this earlier and made the city a little more livable, but Castro couldn’t be bothered. He cares more about Obama’s impression of Cuba than Cubans’ experience of living in Cuba. Why should he care what they think and feel? As far as he’s concerned, they’re his property.
He knows they’re unhappy, though. How could he not? Quality of life is so excruciatingly awful in Cuba that hundreds of thousands of people have thrown themselves into the ocean and risked death by drowning and dehydration and exposure and shark attacks to escape.
Fidel and Raul Castro have never taken responsibility. Instead, they’ve insisted for decades that American sanctions—or its preferred term, the blockade—are the cause of Cuba’s immiseration and poverty, but that’s nonsense on stilts.
“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” Obama said to the live audience in Havana, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”
Of course sanctions have a negative effect on the economy, but the main cause of Cuban poverty is communist economics. Every communist country in the history of the world has been impoverished. It’s a bankrupt system that has never worked and never can work.
Here’s just one reason why: The United States has a minimum wage while Cuba has a maximum wage. And that maximum wage is a paltry 20 dollars a month. No one can get ahead. It’s impossible. It’s illegal. When prosperity is a crime, there can be no prosperity, and that’s entirely the fault of Cuba’s communist party.
For decades, one of Cuba’s famous propaganda billboards has boasted that “The changes in Cuba are only for more socialism.” If Cuban officials want their fellow citizens to prosper, they know what they need to do. They need to turn that billboard around and declare that, at this point, the changes in Cuba are only for capitalism.
They know this, too, because they’re experimenting a little bit around the edges. Raul Castro is a bit less doctrinaire than his brother Fidel. He has implemented some microcapitalist reforms. The emphasis for now, though, still belongs on the micro. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes in the Wall Street Journal, Castro has “legalized a narrow number of economic activities for the purpose of putting to work millions of Cubans the bankrupt state can no longer ‘employ.’ But these businesses, such as selling fruit and shining shoes, are not allowed to hire employees, and they are only legal as long as they remain the urban equivalent of subsistence farming.”
Castro is still blaming it all on the United States, though, and he says relations cannot be fully normalized until the US leaves Guantanamo Bay and lifts the embargo.
The Cuban government may eventually relent on Guantanamo Bay—the United States Navy has been leasing it since 1903—but of course sanctions have to be lifted before relations between our two countries are normal. No one imposes or maintains sanctions on friendly countries. (Imagine American sanctions against, say, Ireland, Canada or Japan.)
If Castro were honest with himself and with Cubans, he’d add that relations cannot be fully normalized until Cuba conforms to the human rights norms in the Western Hemisphere. Lifting sanctions is up to Congress, not the White House, and there has been a bipartisan consensus on sanctioning Cuba since 1960. The reason that consensus still holds is because Cuba is still a police state. Congress won’t budge until Castro budges, and Castro admits that he is not going to budge.
There are, the dictator says, “profound differences that will not disappear over our political model, democracy, human rights, social justice, international relations, peace and stability.”
He says that as if the United States is the one with the human rights problem, but Cuba, not the United States, is the one-party state. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that does not hold elections. Cuba, not the United States, is the one with no civil liberties whatsoever. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that forces people by law to be poor.
The Cuban people, Castro says, won’t “relinquish what they have gained through great sacrifice.” What he really means is that the government won’t relinquish the power it has gained through bloodshed and repression.
No serious person believes there will be riots in the streets of Havana if people are allowed to earn more than 20 dollars a month. Not even the most ardent Castro apologist thinks Cubans will go into open rebellion if they’re allowed to vote for more than one party. Not a soul fears they’ll yearn to relocate to North Korea if they suddenly find themselves with freedom of speech and assembly.
During Monday’s press conference, Castro lashed out when CNN journalist Jim Acosta asked him about political prisoners. “If there are political prisoners,” the dictator said, “give me a list, right now. What political prisoners? Give me their names, and if there are political prisoners, they will be free by tonight.”
Oh, please. Just yesterday—a few hours before Obama landed in Havana—the regime arrested more than 20 people at a Ladies in White demonstration. Secret policemen dragged women to a police bus and threw men onto the ground and handcuffed them. The Ladies in White is an all-women movement of sisters, wives, and daughters of male political prisoners. What does Castro expect us to believe they’re protesting for?
“The group and their supporters have held regular Sunday marches for more than 30 consecutive weeks,” Amnesty International wrote in December, “to call for the release of Cuban political prisoners and human rights protection. These peaceful demonstrations have been met with a pattern of arbitrary arrests and other harassment by the authorities.”
And it’s not just the Ladies in White. Activist José Daniel Ferrer says a bunch of his comrades have also been arrested in the last week.
Obama is scheduled to meet with Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White. The fact that this is even possible is progress of a sort. If Fidel were still ruling the roost, all members of the Ladies in White organization would be in prison. No foreign leader, let alone the president of the United States, would be allowed to meet with them.
Still, Amnesty International says the number of political arrests and detentions is increasing lately. So don’t get excited.
“The Obama administration boasts that it negotiated the liberation of 53 political prisoners in 2014,” O’Grady writes. “But more than half of those have been rearrested, and four who received multiyear sentences were exiled last week. In 2015 there were more than 8,600 political detentions, and in the first two months of this year there were 2,555.”
The ball is in Raul Castro’s court. The United States and Cuba can fully restore warm relations tomorrow if he does the right thing. The question for him is simple: Would he rather share or lose power in a free and prosperous country, or go down in history as the Caribbean’s unrepentant Caligula?
He might change. He’s old enough now that history’s judgment may outweigh the benefits of a few more years at the top. It’s possible. Against all expectations, the far more oppressive regime in Myanmar/Burma has done a near-complete about-face. But if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, Cuba won’t be rich, free, and in from the cold until Fidel and Raul Castro are dead.
Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.
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