Monday, June 2, 2008

Cuban Eyes Wide Open on Obama

One Hispanic politician who will not be supporting Barack Obama is Fidel Castro.

Castro complained in a recent commentary published in the official newspaper Granma that Obama’s speech in Miami last week “portrays the Cuban revolution as anti-democratic and lacking in respect for freedom and human rights.”

Which is a good description of the Havana regime. Brother Raúl indeed introduced economic changes, like letting Cubans buy cell phones and stay in resorts that used to be tourist-only. But free expression is still severely limited.

Just this Sunday, police broke up a peaceful meeting of about 30 people in the home of a leading dissident, Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez.” They had gathered to plan a walk through the streets of Havana to commemorate the death of Pedro Luis Boitel, a political prisoner who died in jail in 1972. Is merely talking about that kind of protest illegal under Cuban law? Doesn’t matter. The cops barged in and beat up people because they can. When the authorities want to crush somebody, they don’t look up the legalities. They just go do it.

It’s arbitrary lawlessness, and it’s the way Cuba has been governed for going on 50 years. Raúl Castro is not interested in ending it. But will the economic changes he introduced set off a demand for political reform that cascades out of his control?

More than ever, the policy of the United States toward Cuba needs nuance, flexibility and eyes wide open. It’s no good continuing on as if nothing has happened in Havana. Something is happening, and Washington should aim at helping that something spin out of the hands of the ruling elite who want to loosen economic constraints without permitting political liberties.

George Bush did right by fine-tuning the embargo to allow Cubans in the U.S. to send cell phones to Cuba. Cell phones give Cubans more contact with the outside world, which is to say more encouragement to demand basic rights. Bush saw the opening and took it. It’s one example of the nuance and flexibility that is possible if eyes are wide open.

More can be done: The time is now right to let Cubans from the U.S. send visitors to the island and send money to relatives without restrictions. Economic gains that the regime makes from the flow of dollars would be offset by Cuban-Americans bringing word of democracy.

Bush is unlikely to take those steps. And McCain has yet to show any imagination. He is just calling for more of the same — an unforgivable failure to take advantage of the regime’s vulnerabilities in the transition between Castros.

Then there is Obama. Why did the older Castro complain about him? In his Miami visit, Obama said he’d keep the embargo in place but lift restrictions on visits and remittances. He was applauded, although hard-line exiles see that as capitulation.

What would be capitulation is a unilateral lifting of the embargo, which Obama made clear he opposed, and direct talks, about which Obama did not make himself clear at all.

“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raúl Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said,” Obama told the Miami crowd. “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

Sounds like a pledge to meet with Raúl Castro. A meeting with him and the American president would be worse than useless. Nobody who knows anything about the two brothers can possibly believe they can be talked into reform. There is simply nothing to negotiate, and the only effect of such a meeting is to give a regime in critical condition a formidable political and diplomatic boost. And that would be even more unforgivable than McCain’s lack of action.

Yet after the implicit promise to meet with Castro “without preconditions,” Obama went on to say that “as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

The next few months will reveal whether Barack Obama has his eyes open wide enough to see not only that urgent changes are needed in Cuba policy, but also that those changes must not include direct talks that can only set back the cause of freedom for Cubans.

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