Burma and Cuba are half the world apart and couldn’t be more different. The first is Asian, mostly Buddhist but with a beleaguered Muslim minority, and has a population of 50 million. Cuba is in the Caribbean, mainly Catholic but with syncretic, African-influenced rites practiced by some parts of the population, and has only 11 million people.
In one way, however, the two nations are tied at the hip: both are corrupt dictatorships run by generals to whom the Obama has thrown a life line by normalizing relations and halting many sanctions.
And with both, the Obama Administration is asking for nothing in return.
It’s all part a curious foreign policy approach that the President described with some detail at a White House meeting Monday with a group of 75 members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. According to the President, Burma, Cuba and Iran are foreign policy successes.
The President explained to his audience that transitions from military rule to democracy by some Southeast Asia nations had offered an example to Burma (which he invariably calls Myanmar, the name the generals gave it in the 1990s) as it prepares for elections in November.
“That, I think, created more space within Myanmar, and President Thein Sein, to feel that this is possible,” said Obama of the general-turned-President.
“I think the people of Myanmar deserve the credit for this new opening,” he said, apparently believing that they are in charge of their own fate. But only up to a point; he himself deserves some recognition: “But my visit there didn’t hurt, in trying to reinforce the possibilities of freedom for 40 million people,” he added. The President visited Burma in 2012 and again last November.
It was all part of the successful diplomatic legacy Mr. Obama said he will leave behind after his two terms in office.
“People don’t remember: when I came into office, the United States in world opinion ranked below China and just barely above Russia. But today, once again, the United States is the most respected country on earth,” the President boasted.
“Part of that,” he added, “is because of the work that we did to re-engage the world. It’s the reason why we’re moving in the direction of normalizing relations with Cuba and the deal what we’re trying to negotiate with Iran, (and), you know, our efforts to help encourage democracy in Myanmar.”
That Burma is included with Cuba in the list of what re-engagement hath wrought confirms, however, what I and others have written: that the Administration’s Cuba policy would lead at best to a Caribbean version of the transitions we have seen in China, Vietnam and Burma—which amounts to little political change at all. As opposed to the East European transitions, where democracy and free markets triumphed, in the Asian models members of former regimes remain in charge, are dedicated mostly to enriching themselves and denying their people freedom.
Corruption reigns in Burma, with Transparency International rating it 156 out of 175 countries in its Corruption Perception Index. The Heritage Foundation gives it an overall rating of 161 in a list of 178 in its Index of Economic Freedom.As for “the possibilities of freedom,” Burma’s former generals are firmly in charge and are set to retain power after the elections, which many observers believe will not be fair. The Constitution gives the military an automatic 25% of parliament, granting an effective veto on any amendment.
The opposition leader who has won elections but has never been able to lead the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be allowed to run. The Constitution bans people with close relatives who are foreign to run for parliament, and Suu Kyi’s late husband was British.
Suu Kyi says the Constitution is “unfair, unjust and undemocratic,” but she also reserves criticism for President Obama’s approach. Two months ago she told Reuters that President Obama’s praise for the Burmese government “makes them more complacent.”
“The United States and the West in general are too optimistic and a bit of healthy skepticism would help everybody a great deal,” the 1991 Nobel laureate said.
Professor Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia’s Macquarie University, wrote me that Obama “talks of ‘democracy in Burma’ as if such a thing is in prospect under existing arrangements and laws. No democracy will be established in the elections of November (should they go ahead), simply because these elections are already rigged. The overwhelmingly desired candidate is not allowed to run, the army will retain a veto over constitutional change and the dominant say in who becomes President, while great swathes of Burma’s population are being made ineligible to vote.”
As for the President’s trip there last November, Dr. Turnell said, “The great change on the ground since Obama’s visit has been the very substantial backsliding on reforms.”
Burma is ahead of Cuba, as President Obama initiated his rapprochement in 2012, and if its fate is a promise of things to come for the island, then Cubans’ hopes of freedom will be dashed. As former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it, “U.S. policy in both countries is a figment of the President’s imagination.”
It is instructive, too, that President Obama compared his approach to Cuba and Burma with his talks with Iran on how to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Mr. Obama has met stiff opposition in Congress on both Cuba and Iran. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Monday that he would block any attempt to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until Havana made concessions to advance human rights and democracy. Congress can play a similar role on Burma, keeping the Administration honest and true to American values.
Perhaps the Obama legacy will be the propping up of failing, undemocratic and all-around unsavory regimes, with only Congress offering a last line of defense.
- Michael Gonzalez is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
This article originally appeared in Forbes. The original piece can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikegonzalez3/2015/06/03/burma-is-a-bad-omen-for-hopes-of-change-in-cuba/.