With dictator Raul Castro ‘retiring,’ now is the time to end Obama’s failed policy and tighten the screws on Cuba

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Elliott Abrams at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Time to Tighten the Screws on Cuba?

With the Castro era coming to a close in Cuba, it may be time for President Donald J. Trump to take back some of his predecessor’s concessions to Havana.

he U.S. gamble with Cuba has not paid off. President Obama’s attempts to catalyze reforms in the communist country by thawing bilateral relations fell flat. The Trump administration has wisely walked some of these policies back, but many Obama-era concessions remain in place.

With President Raul Castro’s impending retirement, the United States should consider stepping up pressure on Havana, relenting only when new leadership grants the Cuban people real democratic gains.

Obama’s Ill-Conceived Gamble

President Obama began to ease decades-old restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba soon after his inauguration. Under his changes, Cuban-Americans were permitted to send unlimited amounts of money to relatives on the island, and Americans were permitted to travel there as individuals rather than in educational or religious groups.

In 2014, during Obama’s second term, he and Raul Castro restored full diplomatic relations and reopened U.S. and Cuban embassies. In 2016, the president made a historic visit to Cuba, allowed commercial flights between the countries to resume, and permitted cruise ships departing from U.S. ports to dock in Cuba. However, despite the Obama administration’s efforts, the U.S. embargo on Cuba remained in place, impeding attempts to expand trade.

Obama argued this normalization with Cuba was required because the previous U.S. policy “was not working.” In a speech during his 2016 visit to Havana, he called for a real political opening in Cuba. “I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights,” he said. “And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

Weak Returns

What was the impact of Obama’s policy changes? U.S. remittances and tourism to Cuba rose substantially, but trade—limited by the embargo—did not follow suit. Rather, it actually declined: U.S. exports to Cuba (there are almost zero imports from the island) fell from approximately $533 million in 2009 to $283 million in 2017, Obama’s last year in office. No doubt removal of the embargo, which would require U.S. congressional action, would have spurred trade, but there is no reason to think it would have led to political changes.

In fact, the increases in tourism and remittances and the opening of official diplomatic ties during the Obama years did not spur gains for Cubans on the human rights and political front. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent nongovernmental organization, found that in 2016 Cuban authorities detained 9,940 individuals, a record number. There were 5,155 detentions reported in 2017, but there were likely many more prisoners of conscience. Internet censorship has not diminished nor has access expanded. There have, of course, been no free elections.

In its latest report on Cuba, Amnesty International stated, “The Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of prisoners detained on politically motivated grounds, remained one of the primary targets of repression by the authorities. During detention, the women were often beaten by law enforcement officials and state security agents dressed as civilians.”

Obama’s Cuba policies may have actually undermined U.S. objectives there. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote in 2016 that “prominent leaders of Cuba’s peaceful opposition believe President Obama’s concessions to the Castro regime have been counterproductive to the fight for freedom.”

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