Until recently, the Obama administration had been surprisingly firm in its posture toward Cuba, always asking for concessions — in terms of freedom for the Cuban people — before lifting sanctions against the Stalinist Castro dictatorship, which has ruled the island for more than five decades.
Perhaps the president had no other choice, given the many Americans who already say he is a closet communist. But now that the midterm elections are history, apparently Obama feels it's safe to crack the closet door open. Politically, it could be a huge mistake. It could cost him the Cuban-American vote and the state of Florida in 2012.
Yet Obama has decided to continue to dismantle the 48-year U.S. trade embargo against the communist island by executive order, without consulting Congress. His decision to lift some travel restrictions on Cuba-bound American students, academics and religious groups and restrictions on sending money comes without any significant concessions from the Fidel/Raul Castro regime.
The Cuban people are no less deprived of their freedom and human rights now than they have been in 50 years. The Cuban government still is repressing "virtually all forms of political dissent," according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
Last year alone, the report says, 1,220 arbitrary detentions were documented by Cuban dissidents, and 113 political prisoners were serving long, inhumane and unjustified sentences. One prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after an 85-day hunger strike, and another dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, maintained a hunger strike for 135 days, forcing the regime to agree to release 52 political prisoners who had been held since 2003. Some pundits would give credit to the Catholic Church for negotiating their release, but it was Zapata, Fariñas and the relatives of the political prisoners — known as the "Ladies in White" — who exposed the Castro brothers to world condemnation and finally forced them to budge.
Nevertheless, the report notes that only 40 have been released, 39 of them with the condition that they had to leave the island and accept forced exile. The government doesn't want them leading the opposition on the streets of Havana. Only one of those released was allowed to stay in Cuba. The 12 others, who refused to leave the island and undoubtedly would speak out as dissidents if released, remain in prison.
Since taking over for his brother Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro, the report says, has continued to enforce political conformity through criminal prosecutions, harassment, denial of employment, travel restrictions and even beatings.
So why now, President Obama? This makes no sense!
What makes this move even more absurd is that it comes at a time when many world economists, diplomats and even Raul Castro himself have said the Cuban economy may be on the verge of collapsing.
"The life of the Cuban Revolution is in the balance!" Raul said as he announced new austerity measures in December. "We rectify, or we sink!"
According to WikiLeaks, the Italian ambassador in Havana has predicted that "Cuba will be bankrupt in 2011." So why would Obama want to throw the Castro brothers a lifesaver now that their ship of horrors finally is sinking?
That is the question that is boggling many minds. Yet this is what happens to American presidents, who are limited to an eight-year maximum time frame, when they try to deal with the Castro brothers, who rule indefinitely and have the luxury of waiting out any White House occupant. The Castro brothers' dictatorship already has outlasted 10 American presidents. Obama is well on his way to becoming the 11th.
The Castro brothers make no concessions. All "negotiations" have to be on their terms. And their terms always ensure that they will maintain total control of the Cuban people. If their repression machine is somehow going to be weakened by some kind of new economic partnership with the United States, they simply will say "no dice!" — as they have many times in the past.
Yet every couple of decades, we get an American president who thinks he can get the Castro brothers to repent from their criminal ways and who, pressured by his own term limits, begins to give them concessions without getting anything in return.
And the Castro brothers know just how to exploit this. They put the rest of the world in a position in which we almost feel as if we should be grateful because they release political prisoners who never should have been jailed in the first place.
Is that what's happening to President Obama?
Instead of believing that Obama is a closet communist or a Castro sympathizer, I like to think the president is simply so eager to see change in Cuba that he refuses to wait for concessions.
But of course, that's the wrong (and very naive) way to go about it. The Cuban regime will simply not allow change that could threaten its own survival.
Yet demonstrating amazing naiveté, the Jan. 14 White House announcement noted that the new measures "will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."
Really? Can the Obama administration be that naive? When are we holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"?
If we have learned anything from the past 50 years of "the Castro brothers vs. 11 American presidents," we should know that U.S. concessions never have made the dictators release their shocking grip on the Cuban people.
What makes Obama think he can do better?
We also should remember that U.S. concessions only have served to revive the Castro regime at times — like now — when it was nearing its last breath.
When the regime was strapped for cash in the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies, it was the Clinton administration that threw Fidel Castro a lifesaver by doing exactly what Obama is doing now for Raul Castro. Clinton also lifted travel and cash flow restrictions on Cuba, and in return, he got absolutely nada.
Clinton's concessions only created a source of cash for the Castro regime and for a few unscrupulous American travel agents who used all sorts of loopholes to enable regular American tourists to go to Cuba pretending to be affiliated with a church or a university. The whole arrangement was so abused and discredited that it was rescinded by the Bush administration, only to be revived this month by Obama.
It's ludicrous! Instead of propping up the last dinosaurs of the 20th century, Obama should be seeking their extinction. Given his liberal credentials, this is a president who easily could rally international public opinion to force democratic changes in Cuba. Instead of granting Cuba more concessions, Obama should be seeking unilateral condemnation of Cuba's human rights violations and getting the whole world to help shut down the Castro regime. Instead of cutting back on support for dissidents and pro-democracy activities — to cowardly avoid irritating the Castro brothers — the president needs to find the cojones to stand up to them.
At a time when the world's oldest dictatorship is nearly bankrupted and seeking to survive only to keep repressing its people, throwing the Castro brothers a lifeline is not only a terrible and senseless idea but also tantamount to becoming the dictators' accomplice.
Pretending to help the Cuban people, we are about to further enrich and empower their oppressors.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.