You would think that only by making concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary Cubans would the repressive rulers in Havana merit the first U.S. presidential visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Indeed, President Obama said as much. In December, he stated that he would travel to Cuba only “if, in fact, I with confidence can say that we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans. If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there.”
It wouldn’t be hard to make improvements. After all, “the Cuban regime has murdered, imprisoned and silenced countless of its own citizens,” writes Cuba expert Ana Quintana. “It has actively worked to undermine democracy in the Americas, using its puppet in Venezuela to incubate and spread the anti-democratic disease that ails most of the Western Hemisphere.”
Unfortunately for the people of Cuba, there are no signs of reversal to be seen. Officials there arrested dozens of human rights protesters, including members of the well-known group Ladies in White (whose members include the wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents), just before Mr. Obama’s arrival.
In the first two months of 2016 alone, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights has documented 2,555 political arrests. That’s almost a third of 2015’s year-end total of 8,616 — and in only 60 days. Far from easing up, governmental persecution appears to be accelerating.
In addition, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other independent organizations report unprecedented violations of religious freedoms by Cuban authorities. According to CSW, there’s been a tenfold increase, with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015, compared to 220 in 2014. In three provinces alone, Ms. Quintana notes, 100 churches were demolished and the property of others illegally seized.
“Week after week,” CSW writes, “state security agents physically and violently dragged scores of women away from Sunday morning services … . This tactic is also applied to religious leaders who are viewed as problematic, for whatever reason, by the authorities . [F]or the first time in four years a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorized religious services.”
But some Cubans are doing quite well since the U.S. policy was changed. According to author Mike Gonzalez, travel by Americans to Cuba has risen 50 percent since the president announced the shift in December 2014, causing a 4 percent rise in GDP. Hotel revenue grew by 12 percent last year, and it’s expected to double this year. Good news, indeed — if you’re a member of the ruling elite.
The president’s Cuban policy change has obviously not borne fruit. To promote freedom on the island, and greater security in our own hemisphere, the United States should be rewarding actual changes by the Castro regime, not making unilateral concessions in the hopes that maybe things will improve there.
That means pressing for Havana to release political and religious prisoners and to allow dissenting voices to be heard. It means pushing for the return of U.S. fugitives housed in Cuba and to work with regional partners to support a democratic transition on the island. Only steps such as these can bring about actual change.
President Obama may view his trip to Cuba as a legacy-building exercise, on a par with President Nixon’s historic visit to China. But after the glowing headlines have faded from memory, the reality of a people held captive by their own government will remain. How long will we allow that to continue?
- Ed Feulner is the founder of the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in The Washington Times