Freedom Is in Retreat Under Obama Presidency

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cuba last week is one of the best he’s made in his seven years in office. Unfortunately, he’s got a terrible record of following through on his words.

I don’t think Obama should have gone to Cuba. The U.S. has nothing to gain from an opening to the Castro regime: this isn’t Nixon’s trip to China at the height of the Cold War.
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Nor do I think that Obama’s visit will inspire the Cuban dictatorship to loosen up. If the regime wanted to do that, it could have done it a year ago, or 60 years ago.

Totalitarian regimes don’t see the democratic light because of U.S. engagement. Autocracies — like South Korea’s or Taiwan’s in the 1950s — do sometimes evolve. But hard-core dictatorships don’t mellow: they get overthrown. Remember how the Soviet Union collapsed.

By recognizing the Cuban regime as it is today, the U.S. is actually discouraging it from changing. And, just as bad, it’s encouraging investment in Castro’s Cuba.

As long as Cuba has a maximum — not a minimum, a maximum — wage of $20 a month, I’ll presume that new money is going into the Castro family’s pockets, and its security state.

And then there’s the folly of presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett praising Cuba’s propagandistic educational system, and the shame of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, denying that Cuba has any political prisoners. If you really want Cuba to change, the least you can do is to tell the truth about the regime.

But if the president had to make the mistake of going to Cuba, at least, by and large, he said the right things there. My regret is that he’s spent seven years not living up to his speeches.

In his 2009 inaugural address, Obama said that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But in office, he’s extended his hand, without any proof the other side was genuinely willing to unclench.

From the Russia reset to describing Syrian dictator Bashir Assad as a reformer, from reaching out to Iran to going to Cuba, he’s repeatedly reached out his hand.

And it’s not worked. The respected organization Freedom House ranks political rights and civil liberties around the world annually. From 2008 to 2015, 17 nations have become significantly less free — including major ones like Mexico, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Thailand.

Only six nations have improved — all of them small, and most among Africa’s worst performers (so getting a bit better wasn’t hard). Only Senegal, Tonga, and Tunisia have become free since 2008 — and Tunisia is under assault by the Islamists.

None of the recipients of Obama’s extended hand are freer, and some, such as Russia and Syria, are vastly worse now than they were in 2008.

I don’t simply blame the president for all this backsliding: the world is too complicated for that. But the world has become less democratic, and less free, during Obama’s time in office.

And that’s partly because Obama’s approach doesn’t work. If you don’t back up your nice words with actions, nations learn the obvious lesson: the United States doesn’t actually care if you’re free or not.

Obama claims that the United States has “neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.” That’s a straw man. The question is not whether we want to impose change by force. It’s whether we want to encourage change, and do what we can to bring it about.

Obama likes to equate U.S. leadership with imposed regime change — i.e., with George W. Bush and Iraq. But we do in fact want the Cuban regime to change. Therefore, we need to base our policies on opposing Cuba’s jailers, not on going to baseball games with them.

If we don’t, regimes like Castro’s will keep on playing us for fools, and the world will keep on becoming less free. And no fine speeches will change that.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Thatcher Center for Freedom.

 - This piece originally appeared on Newsweek.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in Newsweek