Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Obama’s decision, pro and con

    Obama’s decision, pro and con
    12/18/2014 7:10 PM 12/18/2014 7:10 PM

    President Obama’s historic opening to Cuba is long overdue — and has a
    chance of hastening the Castro dictatorship’s demise. Critics of the
    accord should explain why they believe a policy that has failed
    miserably for half a century could ever work.

    What is it about Cuba that makes reasonable people take leave of their
    senses? The United States maintained full diplomatic relations with the
    Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger,
    hardly a couple of peaceniks, opened the door to China. History argues
    powerfully for engagement as the best way to deal with repressive,
    adversarial regimes. Yet hard-liners insist Cuba must be treated
    differently.

    Visiting the island might change some minds. I went to Cuba 10 times
    between 2000 and 2004 while researching a book, Last Dance in Havana.
    Each trip gave me more regard for the Cuban people — and less for the
    Castro regime.

    The Cubans I met were energetic, ambitious, well-educated — and
    thoroughly stifled by a gerontocratic government that ruled through a
    combination of calibrated repression, impenetrable bureaucracy and
    tropical whimsy. What was permissible today might be outlawed tomorrow.
    I remember once reading a decree listing hundreds of occupations that
    citizens had briefly been permitted to practice as entrepreneurs —
    working for themselves, not the state — but that were again being put
    off-limits. Among them was “birthday party clown.”

    Cuba is much poorer than it should be, given its abundant human capital.
    This is almost entirely due to abysmal economic theory and management;
    communism, as the rest of the world has realized, is no way to create
    wealth. But antagonistic U.S. policy has provided the Castro brothers
    with a convenient scapegoat – and a rationale for repression.

    One afternoon, back when Fidel Castro was still large and in charge, I
    heard The Bearded One speak to a Havana auditorium filled with young
    athletes. Amid what was basically an extemporaneous paean to patriotism
    and physical fitness, he worked in boilerplate references to the
    bloqueo, or blockade – the U.S. trade embargo – and the relentless
    “aggression” of the hegemonic great power to the north.

    For more than 50 years, the Castro government has told Cubans that such
    luxuries as freedom of expression and assembly unfortunately cannot be
    granted because of the constant threat from the United States, which
    sought to destroy the Cuban revolution and erase its accomplishments in
    areas such as education, medicine and sports.

    I’ve met few Cubans who swallowed this line uncritically. But I’ve met
    many, including bitter critics of the regime, who believed U.S. policy
    was counterproductive if only because it gave the Castros a nominal
    reason for clinging to power.

    If he follows through on Wednesday’s agreement to establish full
    diplomatic relations, President Raul Castro will essentially be
    abandoning this time-tested line of argument. Which suggests he must be
    pretty desperate.

    Indeed, the Cuban economy is so moribund that the government has been
    forced to permit a once-unthinkable expansion of the private-sector
    economy. Cubans can now legally buy and sell property, and
    entrepreneurship – while still limited – is encouraged. The reforms may
    be tentative and half-baked but they reflect a grudging acknowledgement
    that socialist principles won’t put food on the table.

    This desperation is why Obama won a deal so lopsided in favor of the
    United States. He released three Cuban spies who have already served
    long terms in prison. In return, Cuba released Alan Gross – who never
    should have been arrested or imprisoned in the first place – and Rolando
    Sarraf Trujillo who spied for the United States inside Cuba, plus a
    reported 53 political prisoners who have been languishing in Cuban jails.

    Establishing full diplomatic relations should be seen as a U.S. gain,
    not a giveaway. As we have learned from experience with the rest of the
    erstwhile communist world, anything that gives Cubans more exposure to
    American values and ideals is for the good. Vocal opponents of the
    Castro regime should be pressing Congress to completely lift the travel
    ban and the trade embargo. Fill Havana’s hotels with sales reps and
    property developers; flood Varadero’s beaches with sun-seeking U.S.
    tourists.

    None of this is a “lifeline” to the Cuban Communist Party, which is no
    more likely to be overthrown anytime soon than the Chinese version. The
    agreement should properly be seen as leverage that can, and I believe
    will, move the Cuban regime toward deeper and more meaningful reforms.
    History will record this as a very bad week for the Castro brothers and
    a very good week for the Cuban people.

    EUGENE ROBINSON

    In recent months, the outlook for the Castro regime in Cuba was growing
    steadily darker. The modest reforms it adopted in recent years to
    improve abysmal economic conditions had stalled, due to the regime’s
    refusal to allow Cubans greater freedoms. Worse, the accelerating
    economic collapse of Venezuela meant that the huge subsidies that have
    kept the Castros afloat for the past decade were in peril. A growing
    number of Cubans were demanding basic human rights, such as freedom of
    speech and assembly.

    On Wednesday, the Castros suddenly obtained a comprehensive bailout —
    from the Obama administration. President Obama granted the regime
    everything on its wish list that was within his power to grant; a full
    lifting of the trade embargo requires congressional action. Full
    diplomatic relations will be established, Cuba’s place on the list of
    terrorism sponsors reviewed and restrictions lifted on U.S. investment
    and most travel to Cuba. That liberalization will provide Havana with a
    fresh source of desperately needed hard currency and eliminate U.S.
    leverage for political reforms.

    As part of the bargain, Havana released Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for
    International Development contractor who was unjustly imprisoned five
    years ago for trying to help Cuban Jews. Also freed was an unidentified
    U.S. intelligence agent in Cuba — as were three Cuban spies who had been
    convicted of operations in Florida that led to Cuba’s 1996 shootdown of
    a plane carrying anti-Castro activists.

    While Mr. Obama sought to portray Mr. Gross’ release as unrelated to the
    spy swap, there can be no question that Cuba’s hard-line intelligence
    apparatus obtained exactly what it sought when it made Mr. Gross a de
    facto hostage.

    No wonder Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s leading dissident blogger, concluded
    Wednesday that “Castroism has won” and predicted that for weeks Cubans
    will have to endure proclamations by the government that it is the
    “winner of its ultimate battle.”

    Mr. Obama argued that his sweeping change of policy was overdue because
    the strategy of isolating the Communist regime “has had little effect.”
    In fact, Cuba has been marginalized in the Americas for decades, and the
    regime has been deprived of financial resources it could have used to
    spread its malignant influence in the region, as Venezuela has done.
    That the embargo has not succeeded in destroying communism does not
    explain why all sanctions should be lifted without any meaningful
    political concessions by Cuba.

    U.S. officials said the regime agreed to release 53 political prisoners
    and allow more access to the Internet. But Raul Castro promised four
    years ago to release all political prisoners, so the White House has
    purchased the same horse already sold to the Vatican and Spain.

    The administration says its move will transform relations with Latin
    America, but that is naive. Countries that previously demanded an end to
    U.S. sanctions on Cuba will not now look to Havana for reforms; instead,
    they will press the Obama administration not to sanction Venezuela. Mr.
    Obama says normalizing relations will allow the United States to be more
    effective in promoting political change in Cuba. That is contrary to
    U.S. experience with Communist regimes such as Vietnam, where
    normalization has led to no improvements on human rights in two decades.
    Moreover, nothing in Mr. Obama’s record of lukewarm and inconstant
    support for democratic change across the globe can give Ms. Sanchez and
    her fellow freedom fighters confidence in this promise.

    The Vietnam outcome is what the Castros are counting on: a flood of U.S.
    tourists and business investment that will allow the regime to maintain
    its totalitarian system indefinitely. Mr. Obama may claim that he has
    dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give
    a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life.

    WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL

    Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican Party’s point man on Cuba,
    seemed to be struggling to contain his fury as he responded to President
    Obama’s move Wednesday to normalize relations with the Cold War foe.

    The Cuban-American legislator, addressing a roomful of reporters and
    photographers in the Capitol, chopped the air with his right hand, fired
    off terse answers to questions and, frequently raising his voice, spat
    insults at the Obama administration:

    “Absurd.”

    “Disgraceful.”

    “Outrageous and ridiculous!”

    “Concession to a tyranny.”

    “Based on an illusion, on a lie.”

    “Conceding to the oppressors.”

    “Willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works.”

    Fox News’ Chad Pergram asked Rubio why he was so confident the Cuba
    shift would be a disaster and not a success like the Camp David accords
    or the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, which also had their
    critics.

    “Because I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this
    president does or anybody in his administration does,” the senator replied.

    Another questioner pointed out that younger Cuban-Americans support
    normal relations with Cuba.

    “I don’t care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we
    should normalize relations in Cuba,” Rubio answered.

    He threatened to use his new position as a subcommittee chairman on the
    Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block the nomination of an
    ambassador to Cuba and the building of an embassy there.

    Rubio’s emotional — and at times inaccurate — response to the policy
    change shows why Obama’s move to normalize ties to Cuba after more than
    half a century is both good policy and good politics. It’s good policy
    because it jettisons a vestigial policy that has stopped serving a
    useful purpose, and because it is a gutsy move by Obama that
    demonstrates strong leadership and will help revive him from lame-duck
    status. It’s good politics because it will reveal that the
    Cuban-American old guard, whose position Rubio represents, no longer
    speaks for most Cuban-Americans.

    Florida International University, which annually polls Cuban-Americans,
    found this year that 68 percent favor diplomatic relations with Cuba.
    Only 41 percent of those 65 and older favor normalization, while 88
    percent between the ages of 18 and 29 do. But Rubio was responding with
    his gut, which has been seasoned by the unwavering dogma of Cuban
    exiles. He began his remarks with the phrase “As a descendant of Cuban
    immigrants and someone who’s been raised in a community of Cuban
    exiles,” and he observed that “Cuba is close to home for me, both
    because of my heritage, also because of the community I live in.”

    This immersion has filled Rubio with faith-based logic, and an absolute
    certainty of outcomes that cannot be knowable. “I now know for a
    fundamental truth that this is going to make the day democracy comes to
    Cuba even further away,” he proclaimed. He further asserted that “I know
    this regime’s true nature. I interact with people that have been
    oppressed by it every single day. These changes will do nothing to
    change their behavior towards the Cuban people. 1/8 The regime 3/8 will
    be just as repressive a year from now as it is today.”

    Before appearing in the Senate TV studio, Rubio granted an interview to
    Fox News in which he said that “Barack Obama is the worst negotiator
    that we’ve had as president since at least Jimmy Carter.” That would be
    the Jimmy Carter who negotiated the still-successful Camp David accords.
    By the time the 43-year-old Rubio gave his news conference, he revised
    that line, calling Obama “the single worst negotiator we have had in the
    White House in my lifetime.”

    But Rubio had more trouble when The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe asked
    the Catholic lawmaker what he would say to Pope Francis, who intervened
    to encourage negotiations and to receive delegations from the two
    countries at the Vatican. “My understanding is that the influence that
    His Holiness had was on the release of (American Alan) Gross, which I’ve
    not criticized.”

    A statement from the Vatican suggested its interest was broader than
    that, and the pope offered his “warm congratulations for the historic
    decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and
    Cuba to establish diplomatic relations.”

    The senator had a different view than the Holy Father’s. “In short, what
    these changes are going to do is they will tighten this regime’s grip on
    power for decades to come,” he said.

    That’s the doctrine of senatorial infallibility, and it usually ends
    badly for its adherents.

    DANA MILBANK

    Source: Obama’s decision, pro and con | The Miami Herald –
    http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article4645248.html