Under President Barack Obama’s leadership, the U.S. shifted from a position of containment to appeasement on Cuba, offering concessions to a dictatorship for very little in return.
In a sudden break with decades of diplomatic protocol, Obama, leaving the Department of State and some members of his administration in the dark, announced a new Cuba policy December 17, 2014.
The decision followed 18 months of secret negotiations.
“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” the president said, seeking to eliminate one of the last remnants of the Cold War.
“Through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves,” Obama said in a televised address.
The U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations July 20, 2015, and Secretary of State John Kerry reopened the embassy two months later.
The move has encountered strong opposition.
One hundred twenty-six former Cuban political prisoners, who collectively spent more than 1,900 years in the Cuban regime’s prisons and labor camps, wrote a letter to Obama, telling him that his new policies will “prolong the life of the dictatorship.”
At the time of Obama’s policy shift, Cuba was suffering under the weight of its failed socialist policies, providing an excellent opportunity for the Obama administration to make demands of the Cuban dictatorship, such as calling for much-needed domestic reforms or the protection of basic human rights. Talks between Washington and Havana were, however, were “non-transactional” or one-sided, with the Cuban government in Havana primarily calling the shots.
Attempts to normalize relations facilitated the release of imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, a key aspiration for Obama’s second term.
The U.S. also secured the release of 53 political prisoners, a fraction of the estimated 8,000 people arrested for political reasons in 2014, and many of those who were set free were later rearrested by authorities.
U.S. gains largely ended here.
The Cuban government, on the other hand, managed to achieve the release of three Cuban spies, the relaxation of certain trade restrictions and travel barriers, promises to bring an end to the long-standing embargo, and even commitments to organize intelligence-sharing exchanges between U.S. and Cuban intelligence divisions.
Obama doubled down on his commitments to Cuba in March 2016 by becoming the first sitting American president to visit the small island nation since 1959, a move designed to cement his legacy. Prior to the visit, the president said that he wanted “to shine a light on progress that’s been made, but also … nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.”
A nudge may not be enough, though.
During the visit, Cuban President Raul Castro blatantly denied the existence of human rights abuses. “We defend human rights, in our view civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, inter-dependent and universal,” he said, dismissing the rampant oppression in his county.
Despite a lack of concessions by the Cuban government, Obama released a presidential policy directive on U.S.-Cuba normalization in October of last year, making further overtures to Cuba.
“We recognize Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination and acknowledge areas of difference. We seek to address such differences through engagement and dialogue, and by encouraging increased understanding between our governments and our peoples,” the directive stated.
The directive “takes a comprehensive and whole-of-government approach to promote engagement with the Cuban government and people, and make our opening to Cuba irreversible,” Obama explained.
Obama’s actions demonstrated that his policies are on the side of the regime rather than the embattled Cuban people.
His policy directive indicated that the U.S. will not pursue “regime change,” arguing that the U.S. is willing to let the Cuban people “make their own choices about their future,” even though the authoritarian system in place in Cuba prevents the people from making decisions about their future.
“Cubans are worse off now than how they imagined their future at [this] point,” dissident journalist Yoani Sanchez revealed last October.
Toward the end of 2016, National Public Radio introduced that U.S. law enforcement agencies have encountered “a surge of Cuban migrants,” the “highest numbers they’ve seen in two decades.”
Last year, over 5,000 people tried to make the journey from Cuba to Florida; that figure is roughly twice what it was in 2014.
Were the situation in Cuba actually improving, people should, in theory, be less likely to flee the country. The statistics on the number of people who have attempted to escape suggests that change, despite Obama’s claim prior to his meeting with Castro, has not come to Cuba.
Human rights abuses are reportedly on the rise, along with the number of dissidents jailed annually.
The economic situation is not much better.
“Two years into Obama’s campaign to normalize relations with Cuba, his push to expand economic ties is showing few results,” the Associated Press asserted in a November 2016 report.
While Obama sought to “empower the Cuban entrepreneur,” the economic system in Cuba inhibits free market exchanges. Economic activities are controlled by the government, which means that any business carried out between Cuban and American companies is likely to pour money into the regime, potentially strengthening its power with additional financial resources.
Castro has cracked down on Cubans attempting to engage in private business, “a new sign that Cuba’s Communist-run government is hesitant to further open up to private business in a country where it still controls most economic activity,” Reuters revealed in October last year.
Obama’s aspirations were to facilitate social change, economic growth, and increased freedom, in society and online. Like the others, Cuba has not made significant progress on the latter ambition.
“Cuba has long ranked as one of the world’s most repressive environments for information and communication technologies. High prices, exceptionally slow connectivity, and extensive government regulation have resulted in a pronounced lack of access to applications and services,” Freedom House reported in 2016.
The Obama administration’s outreach to Cuba has so far failed to produce the results promised by the president.
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