Editor’s note: This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
We all celebrate when an innocent person is released from prison. The freedom of Alan Gross is welcome news. But the release of three convicted Cuban spies and operatives (who were directly responsible for the killing of other innocents), the continued lack of consultation by the administration with other branches of government and Congress, and the disregard for the unrelenting oppression of political freedoms are a high cost to pay.
The leading Cuban-Americans in the legislature, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Robert Menéndez (D-NJ), and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) released statements with scathing criticisms. Sen. Rubio stated that the deal was “disgraceful for a president who claims to treasure human rights and human freedom. This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.” The statement by Ros-Lehtinen complements Rubio’s criticism: “This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”
I spoke with several human rights and democracy advocates and all were strongly critical. Tony Guedes, leader of the Cuban Liberal Union, Unión Liberal Cubana, who lives in exile in Spain, is convinced that the policies just announced will help the Cuban communist regime and will delay the transition to a real democracy. Guedes believes that the announcements are connected with President Obama’s decision to attend the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Sen. Robert Menéndez, the Democrat who is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had strong words about this as well. He said, “I’m extraordinarily disappointed that we intend to violate our own principles, laid down in the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, on the Summit being a forum for the hemisphere’s democratically-elected leaders.” According to Menéndez, the new actions on Cuba “disavows the Charter and sends a global message about the low priority we place on democracy and respect for human and civil rights.”
Unlike the above bipartisan critics, the leader of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the new Cuban policy. Its CEO Tom Donohue stated that the “U.S. business community welcomes today’s announcement, and has long supported many of the economic provisions the president touched on in his remarks” and continued “the Chamber and its members stand ready to assist as the Cuban people work to unleash the power of free enterprise to improve their lives.”
Free enterprise indeed improves lives. Free trade also works wonders to bring people and countries together. But trade managed by communist oligarchs can hardly be defined as free trade. An economy where all the key decisions are made by men in uniform can’t be described as free enterprise. Echoing the Chamber, a powerful German think-tank, the Bertelsman Foundation, published a piece which concludes with a typical modern-day capitalist statement “who knows, maybe the US will be able to export a few more Che Guevara tee-shirts along the way.”
Fernando Menéndez, a Cuban expert of the Center for a Secure Free Society, noted that when making the announcement, President Raúl Castro—who had been wearing civilian clothes—donned his military uniform to send a signal of who still remains in power. Crony capitalism of the left, if that is an appropriate name for the Chinese model, might create huge opportunities for profits but, as we see in the current disputes in Hong Kong, it can also weaken the struggle for political freedoms and respect for human rights.
The decline in the price of oil was threatening Cuba with a reduction of the subsidy it receives from its sugar-daddy: Venezuela. This deal was arranged because the Obama administration is struggling to create some positive legacies. It aims to get credit for reversing a policy, a stringent embargo, which on its own failed to bring down communism. The Pope and the Canadian government, mentioned as playing important roles, seek different benefits. Pope Francis sees opportunities for the Catholic bishops in Cuba who receive periodic permissions from the tyrants to expand their preaching and educational efforts.
Mainstream media also hails the role of Canada, whose government hosted and facilitated some of the negotiations. Canadians have less restrictions to travel and conduct business in Cuba. The U.S. sanctions and embargo certainly cause them headaches. The Canadian government has a pro-Western stance but it is not immune from the power of economic interests and these might trump concerns for political and human rights.
The economic crisis in Cuba resulting from the woes of Russia and Venezuela would have been a wonderful opportunity to demand true changes. Cuba is still listed as a State sponsor of terrorism. It could be delisted if it stopped meddling in other countries. Its major ally Venezuela would likely have to release its own political prisoners. Not yet. Unfortunately the potential of selling more Che Guevara T-shirts carried the day.