Obama's visit to Cuba starts with arrests of dissidents

The so-called new chapter between U.S. and Cuba is much like the previous one after the arrest of human rights protesters before President Barack Obama’s visit. Via USA Today:

Some in the [ Ladies in White ] group thought Cuban authorities would back off this Sunday out of respect for Obama’s visit. Berta Soler, one of the founding members who has been marching since 2003, said while walking to the church Sunday morning that maybe they would be allowed to protest without getting arrested.

“Everything looks good so far,” she said.

Despite dozens of international reporters in town for Obama’s trip, the group was quickly rounded up in buses and police cars.

“For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” Soler said before being arrested. “And he needs to know that we are here being repressed simply for exercising our right to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.”

It wasn’t just the Ladies in White being detained, but also the head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Elizardo Sanchez told The New York Times he was detained for three and a half hours after arriving in Cuba on Saturday. Sanchez is going to be meeting with Obama on Tuesday at the new U.S. Embassy in Havana, but notes to NYT Raul Castro’s government is trying to keep protesters from causing a fuss during the President’s visit.

Mr. Sánchez, who spends much of his time tracking the kinds of detentions he was subjected to on Saturday, said the government had also intensified its campaign of intimidation, making more than 1,000 arrests each month in the run-up to Mr. Obama’s visit. In the first two weeks of March, there were 526 detentions, he said.

Generally, people are held for a few hours — for printing fliers, for staging a protest in the street, or if the authorities suspect they plan to protest in the street, Mr. Sánchez said. But he and other opponents of the government said Mr. Obama’s visit had set in motion a broader campaign to keep people in line.

“Right now what you see is preventive repression, so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here,” he said.

So does this mean Obama’s visit is a failure? Not necessarily. His decision to end the “outdated” policy towards Cuba isn’t necessarily a bad one. Most libertarians are in favor of changing the policy towards Cuba because they see the past policy as a failure. Nick Gillespie wrote in Reason how not talking or trading with Cuba just emboldened the Castros.

American policy toward Cuba for the past 50-plus years was a victory for oppression, so complete that it allowed the odious Raul Castro to succeed his godawful brother as a maximum leader. Get it: American policy was so rotten it allowed for a hereditary transfer of power in the autocratic country under sanction. The only other places that have managed that trick are other targets of U.S. diplomatic isolation Syria and North Korea. As John McCain, who pushed to open up relations with communist Vietnam years ago but denounced Obama’s actions toward Cuba, could tell you, America has no problem dealing with all sorts of morally despicable governments.

Simply put, Rubio and many other Republicans are confusing political posturing with principle and pragmatism (those last two are not always mutually exclusive). If the goal of the trade embargo and cutting off diplomatic ties with Cuba was to weaken the awful Castro regime, it’s been a total bust. We’re years into Castro 2.0 and there’s zero reason to believe anything will change anytime soon. The only thing the U.S. stance has done is give the Castro brothers a false though handy explanation for every austerity measure they impose on their subjects and every act of political oppression they commit.

One thing Gillespie also points out is how allowing corporations into Cuba just might encourage the young to be more American friendly and pro-free markets. That would force more changes within the Castro government and more of a sense of glasnost (to steal a term from Mikhail Gorbachev). It’s completely possible Cuba will see its own form of reformation now that ties with the U.S. are starting to be opened up. Remember, it wasn’t just military might which defeated the Soviet Union but the U.S. deciding to trade with them under Ronald Reagan’s administration. That helped push Russia towards becoming more liberalized (i.e. free market), even though the rise of Vladimir Putin has put a major dent into the country’s actual freedom.

One thing Obama should not do is consider things all well and good in Cuba because of normalization. Senator Ted Cruz points out in Politico how Reagan called the Soviets “the evil empire,” and how it made those in the Soviet gulag scream for joy. But Cruz forgets Reagan’s other quote from the “Evil Empire” speech where he says the U.S. shouldn’t “isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them.” This means, as Reagan said, the U.S. (and Obama) should make sure the Castro brothers “must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards.” I’ve no idea if Obama is going to be willing to take a similar position to Cuba, as Reagan did the Soviet Union (the cynic in me says, “No”). But it’s important to realize Cuba isn’t going to go to all freedom and liberty in two years (or maybe even ten) when it comes to no longer cracking down on dissidents. It might be best to stand up to Cuba when they do something anti-freedom, while letting businesses set up shop in Cuba and turn it from a communist country into a free market one. The only question is whether or not Washington has the stomach for it or will they prefer the past 50 years of mostly failed policy to come back.