Call Cuba to Account
Obama should implement LIBERTAD as Congress intended.
This week marks the 18th anniversary of the downing of two U.S. civilian planes by the Cuban military over international waters. On February 24, 1996, Cessnas flown by members of the organization Brothers to the Rescue were patrolling north of Havana for Cuban refugees, who risked life and limb at sea in makeshift craft in search of freedom. Cuban fighter pilots in Russian MiGs encircled the planes and attacked. The planes disintegrated. Killed were three Americans: Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre Jr., and Mario de la Peña, along with U.S. resident Pablo Morales.The killing of Americans once again brought home the true nature of the Cuban regime. The political repercussions were felt in Washington, D.C. Until then, the Clinton administration had thought, as the Obama administration thinks today, that the U.S. could negotiate with the Cuban government. But facing the political embarrassment of the downed aircraft, Clinton reversed course and signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD), which had bipartisan support. It was as far as the Clinton administration was willing to go in taking a hard line on Cuba.
Implementation of LIBERTAD, also known as Helms-Burton, was haphazard at best. The air attack was soon forgotten. A mere two years after it, many had turned their focus to easing sanctions and expanding relations with Havana. That effort continued despite the arrest of the Wasp network of Cuban spies in 1998, the expulsions of Cuban “diplomats” for espionage, and the arrests of Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belén Montes in 2001, and, more recently, of State Department officials Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers for spying for Cuba. These are just the ones we know about.
The trend toward engagement and appeasement of the Cuban dictatorship has worsened under President Obama. His national-security team has eased economic sanctions in several key areas without demanding or securing any concessions whatsoever from Havana. This is backwards. Like Iran and North Korea, Cuba is a regime that calls for a firm hand, not a velvet glove.
In his first inaugural address, President Obama said, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The rhetoric does not match up with the action. The Obama administration has not only given an economic lifeline to this pariah state but also lent it diplomatic legitimacy. The president chose a widely publicized event to make his point and shook dictator Raúl Castro’s hand. Meanwhile, back in the island gulag, the crackdown against pro-democracy advocates has intensified; American citizen Alan Gross was taken hostage in December 2009 and is still being held in a Cuban prison.
U.S. law and policy are supposed to isolate the Cuban government economically while supporting the Cuban people. Cuba desperately needs sanctions eased to secure more dollars and access to the global financial system. The U.S. has an opportunity to leverage that need to press for true democratic change and advance U.S. interests. The Helms-Burton law provides a clear roadmap. Easy? No, but not impossible, if the political will exists.
In LIBERTAD, Congress called on the president to fully enforce, through the Departments of State and Justice, existing regulations and deny visas to Cuban nationals who represent or are employees of the Cuban government or of Cuba’s Communist party. Unfortunately, such travel continues essentially unfettered. The regime uses both diplomatic and unofficial cover to spy on the United States and make business deals that contravene U.S. law and policy.
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