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How Obama Can Make Cuba Freer, Faster

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our president has the unique capability to rally international public opinion, and there is no better time for him to challenge the world to join us in insisting on deep, broad, and irreversible reforms in Cuba.

People in a big city like Washington, D.C., know about something called “mugger money.” That’s the $20 bill you slip into your front pocket while you stash the bulk of your cash elsewhere. To avoid irritating a mugger by claiming you have no money, you offer up the $20 and hope he goes away. The Obama administration’s decision last Friday to let Americans send more cash to Cuba is like slipping mugger money to a few million Cubans. But in Cuba, the mugger never goes away.

Some might regard the Obama administration’s plans to allow U.S. universities and churches to expand study tours as rather unremarkable. And that’s the other problem. At a time when this great country should adopt bold and innovative initiatives to help the Cuban people liberate and govern themselves, the administration reinstated travel loopholes that were abused until they were discredited and discarded years ago.

It is simply dishonest to say that Cubans will benefit by making travel to the island more vulnerable to abuse by people who don’t give a damn about freedom in Cuba.

Those of us responsible for monitoring travel to Cuba before the rules were tightened recall an incident where a church-sponsored travel license was misused to sponsor a golf outing to the island. The sponsor of a yacht trip counseled his cohorts to carry a few wheelchairs or pharmaceuticals on their boats to justify their visit to the Havana Yacht Club. One flyer for a university trip lured students with the promise of a pub crawl to sample local rums. The administration’s decision to issue blanket licenses to universities and churches make such isolated abuses more likely, not less. Indeed, bona fide humanitarian, educational, or religious travel was legal even before the changes announced last week. So it is simply dishonest to say that Cubans will benefit by making travel to the island more vulnerable to abuse by people who don’t give a damn about freedom in Cuba.

Until Friday, friends of the Cuban people have been impressed (or, at least, relieved) that President Obama had not been taken in by half-measures adopted by Cuban President Raul Castro’s interim government. It is true that the dictatorship has been forced to trim its employment rolls and has freed a few dozen political prisoners (and forced them into exile). It has, however, yet to reduce or renounce the Stalinist tactics that it uses every day to torment 11 million Cubans.

The Obama administration reinstated travel loopholes that were abused until they were discredited and discarded years ago.

No one would dare say that President Obama does not want the very best for the Cuban people. But arranging for them to get cash from their families so the Cuban regime can vacuum it out of their pockets at exorbitant state-run dollar stores is nowhere near the best we can do. Standing by silently as the regime curries international favor for freeing innocent dissidents who never should have been jailed in the first place is not the best we can do. Holding business-as-usual talks with a Cuban dictatorship that has held hostage American aid worker Alan Gross for his humanitarian service to the island’s Jewish community is hardly the best we can do. And cutting back on creative pro-democracy aid programs for fear of irritating the dictatorship, and substituting them with micro-credit projects that will do little more than help laid-off regime apparatchiks is perhaps the worst we can do.

“Incremental” measures—using the term adopted by a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Friday’s announcement—are no match for the dictatorship. Are “incremental” measures really designed to bring change, or are they supposed to ensure that change comes slow enough for us to react? Are programs designed to ensure a “soft landing” even compatible with fundamental change? And what’s so good about “stability” if it means that co-conspirators of the brutal men who have been running Cuba for the past five decades are anointed by the world’s incrementalists to run Cuba a bit longer?

Standing by silently as the regime curries international favor for freeing innocent dissidents who never should have been jailed in the first place is not the best we can do.

This is the time for bold leadership—when the regime’s cronies are hatching plots to preserve their impunity and privileges and when everyone else on the island is wondering whether the world gives a damn whether they live as slaves or free people. Our president has the unique capability to rally international public opinion, and there is no better time for him to challenge the world to join us in insisting on deep, broad, and irreversible reforms in Cuba, not a “soft landing” for the dictatorship. He can advance that objective here at home by vowing to veto any unilateral concession—including lucrative tourist travel—until a transitional, democratic regime is in power in Cuba.

Then he can work with others who care about Cuba’s freedom to build a bipartisan consensus behind truly meaningful measures that will really help make Cubans freer, faster.

Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and assistant secretary of State from 2003 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC.

FURTHER READING: Noriega earlier highlights “The WikiLeaker’s Friends in Latin America,” outed “Chávez the Cocaine Capo,” questioned, “Will the U.S. Hand Chávez a License to Kill?” and insisted on “Calling a State Sponsor a State Sponsor” of terrorism. He provided a “Latin American Agenda for the New Congress,” explained “Why Is Hugo Chávez Afraid of the U.S. Congress?” and discussed “Chávez’s Secret Nuclear Program.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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