August 19, 2015

August 19, 2015 | Commentary on Public Diplomacy, Cuba

Don't Celebrate America's Diplomatic Opening to Cuba

On Friday August 14, John Kerry is slated to arrive in Havana, where he will formally reopen the United States’ embassy on the island. It will be the first time a U.S. Secretary of State has set foot in Cuba in 70 years.

But the embassy opening should be no cause for celebration. It is a simply one more false step in this administration’s foreign policy—a miscue that undermines America’s credibility and the cause of freedom on the island.

The White House announced its plan to “normalize” relations with Cuba on December 17, and it’s been working hard ever since to sell the deal as another “smart power” success. Yet one can’t help but wonder why, if this is such a smart move, the administration had to do it so furtively.

While negotiations were underway, only a select few in the National Security Council were privy to the fact that a drastic shift in Cuba policy was in the works. Even the State Department diplomats charged with the post December 17 bilateral talks had no knowledge or role in its development. Not to mention the purposeful exclusion of the seven Cuban American members of Congress, from both parties.

From the onset, the deal has been largely unilateral concessions dictated by Havana and fulfilled by Washington. Over the last eight months, the United States has drastically eased sanctions, lobbied Congress to lift the trade embargo, and prematurely removed Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. The administration also released some of Havana’s most notorious spies from prison.

Aside from returning an American hostage and releasing a few dozen political prisoners (many whom were already due to be released; others have since been rearrested), our negotiating counterparts were not asked to change their behavior one iota. Much like the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the United States chose the path of least resistance.

Kerry’s visit is an attempt to keep public attention focused on the soft side of U.S.-Cuba relations. We are to think that restoring high level diplomatic relations and commercial exchanges will mark the end of hostilities between the two nations. But those tensions were never grounded in the lack of an ambassador or existence of the trade embargo. The United States has had a diplomatic mission on the island since 1977, and Cuban diplomats have been in Washington, D.C., for decades. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 authorized U.S. exports of agricultural and medicinal products to Cuba, and the island has long traded openly with countries all around the world,.

Fundamentally, U.S.-Cuba hostilities are grounded upon one thing: the Castro regime’s refusal to alter its behavior to fit into the established norms of the Western Hemisphere. Decades ago, Latin America and the Western hemisphere at large came to a regional consensus in support of two key issues: free trade and democratic values. This was reinforced on September 11, 2001, with the Inter-American Democratic Charter: a pledge by all members of the Organization of American States to uphold democratic governance and basic human rights.

Cuba was not party these agreements. Despots cannot exist in governments based upon the rule of law and respect for humanity. Therefore, the regime has dedicated itself to rewriting the regional narrative.

The United States has an abiding geopolitical interest in the region, and the stability of the hemisphere. There are quite a few destabilizing forces in the region but the most toxic of all has been Cuba. For over half a century, it has exported its one party dictatorship model. Looking at the current political dynamics, you clearly see Castro’s fingerprints all over it. Latin America is essentially divided in two. On one side of the continent you have rule-of-law countries that have favorable relations with the United States. On the hand side, you have the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA)—Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela—all governed by authoritarians in the mold of Castro.

Under the tutelage of Cuba, ALBA member countries have spearheaded waves of anti-Americanism. Their radical form of socialist populism continues to undermine traditional U.S. foreign policy objectives and create a hostile environment for the United States. For the ALBA bloc, it’s a full-on non-kinetic war against the U.S. They have expelled U.S. diplomats, impeded trade relations, and undermined traditional U.S.-led security and development programs.

When the President’s new Cuba policy is evaluated within this context, the prognosis does not look good. That’s because the negotiations with Havana were far from comprehensive. The negotiators appear to have made no attempt to address Cuba’s continued aggression to the United States, its support of regional anti-American proxies or its persistent human rights violations. Instead, the administration decided to pursue a path of normalization without a single precondition demanding improved behavior from Havana. It has essentially absolved the Western Hemisphere’s longest running military dictatorship of it past sins, without any expectation of repentance, much less reform.

Since the December 17 announcement, a clear and decisive shift has been occurring. Emblematic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy at large, the United States is clearly shifting its focus away from Cuba’s embittered opposition and toward its military dictatorship. No longer does it condemn the Cuban government for its brutality. Independent human rights groups reported between 630-674 political arrests in the month of July alone. Earlier this year, at the Summit of the Americas, Cuban state security pummeled a group of former political prisoners and dissidents. One of those beaten was an American citizen. Yet shortly after, President Obama shook hands and chatted with his Cuban counterpart, General Raul Castro.

Recently the Obama administration announced it would not be inviting Cuban dissidents to Secretary Kerry’s ceremony at the embassy. The announcement came just after last Sunday’s particularly brutal crackdown against dissidents. Over 100 Cuban activists were arrested while wearing face masks of Obama, marking the 17th consecutive Sunday of repression.

How great, and in keeping with the spirit of America, would it have been to see Cuban dissidents standing alongside the Secretary of State as the American flag is raised. Instead, these voices for freedom have been purposefully excluded for the sake appeasing of regime officials. Like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said in a letter to Kerry “for the Obama Administration to shun these courageous Cubans after years of enduring imprisonment, physical abuses, assassinations and threats would be another unforgivable betrayal of America’s moral leadership in the world.”

-Ana Quintana is an analyst specializing in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

About the Author

Ana Quintana Policy Analyst, Latin America and the Western Hemisphere
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

The piece originally appeared in The National Interest