Remarks of Ambassador Roger F. Noriega
Visiting Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Forum on “Promoting Human Rights and Democratic Reforms in Cuba”
At the Heritage Foundation, Friday, January 23, 2015
Those of us who are critics of President Obama’s new initiatives on Cuba do not oppose them because we hope he’s wrong, but because we know he’s wrong.
We know that the single biggest obstacle to economic and political freedom in Cuba for 55 years has been and still is the Castro regime. We know that a courageous, quiet, Christian, Oswaldo Payá, who sought a plebiscite under the rules of Castro’s own constitution, was killed when police ran his car off the road in southeastern Cuba in July 2012.
We know that an American aid worker, Alan Gross, who tried simply to offer Cuba’s small Jewish community Internet access on the island was held hostage for five years for his efforts. We know that while the Obama administration was holding its secret talks with Havana, the Castro government arrested more than 9,000 dissidents, independent journalists, human rights activists, and other political opponents.
So, yes, we know better than to expect anything positive from making unilateral concessions to a dictatorship. And frankly, President Obama should know better, too.
From Nixon, to Ford, to Carter, to Clinton—several of Obama’s predecessors eagerly sought to normalize ties with Havana. However, none of them saw utter capitulation to an implacable anti-American dictatorship as being in the national interest, until Obama. President Reagan and the two Bush Administrations each adopted new measures to reach out to the Cuban people—through Radio and TV Martí and through direct support to independent Cubans.
No U.S. president, until now, thought it was a good idea to resuscitate the Castro regime or to arrange a soft-landing for the dictatorship.
The issue for our consideration today is not whether to impose sanctions on Cuba, but when and how to lift them. Do we do so unilaterally, and risk helping the regime that systematically denies political and economic freedom? Or, do we reserve normal relations for a post-Castro transition, so that we can use them as a lever to induce broad, profound, and irreversible reforms that will effectively liberate the Cuban people?
Inexplicably, President Obama chose the latter course.
I hasten to add that this is not a partisan debate. There is a strong bipartisan consensus in Congress that normal relations with Cuba should be reserved for a regime that is moving toward democracy. Although, President Obama is moving quickly to forfeit a good part of that leverage by normalizing diplomatic ties, he can expect robust opposition to his plan to lift the economic embargo on Cuba.
One central misconception is that the so-called Helms-Burton Act “codifies” the embargo. As a matter of fact, Title II of that Act, drafted originally by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, is a formula for establishing normal trade and even U.S. aid to Cuba to a post-Castro Cuba. The law merely anticipates that a more friendly transitional government in Cuba frees all political prisoners; respects political freedoms; dismantles the police state; and commits to holding fair elections within 18 months. In addition, the law expects a new government to at least make public commitments to establishing independent courts and honoring internationally recognized human rights and labor rights.
The Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed on September 11, 2001, sets even more detailed benchmarks for all 34 members of the Organization of American States. These are not draconian requirements. The trouble is, Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere today that cannot meet any of them. Is the President doing the people of Cuba any favors by saying that their rights don’t matter— because he’s in a hurry to trade with the bankrupt government of Cuba?
Tragically, although President Obama’s new approach is being touted as an historic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations, all of the measures implemented thus far, serve to reinforce the status quo—legitimizing and benefiting a regime that has a 55-year track record of opposing change.
For example, “purposeful travel” to Cuba is a good thing. I made an invaluable visit there in 1998 that acquainted me with the stifling repression and its impact on the Cuban people. The new Obama regulations make it easier to travel to Cuba to visit family members or for other broad purposes. The concern is that U.S. tourism would represent a windfall to Cuba’s hospitality sector—all of which is co-owned by the regime and most of which benefits the military and security apparatus.
Other new regulations—liberalizing cash transfers in support of families, small-farmers and humanitarian projects, and allowing U.S. telecommunications companies to offer services and even invest in Cuba—should have been used to leverage reforms. Until that happens, the regime will continue to vacuum up remittances and shake down U.S. companies while restricting benefits to the Cuban people.
Accepting that this is not what the President intended, he must get serious about engaging the 11 million people of Cuba, rather than trying to placate the regime that torments them. Unfortunately, the President has yet to offer a meaningful strategy for supporting real change in Cuba.
For example, I believe that the President should dispatch a high-profile, personal envoy to key Latin American, Caribbean, and European capitals to explain how the United States proposes to help Cubans other than Castro. President Obama should invite his counterparts to join him in explaining their own efforts at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.
Surely, these neighbors can agree to call on Cuban authorities to liberate all political prisoners and cease arbitrary harassment and detentions of its critics; allow people to exercise their political liberties, as detailed in the Inter-American Democratic Charter; commit to supervised elections as soon as possible;allow unfettered access to the media and the Internet; allow the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to visit and to establish a permanent office to monitor conditions; and give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to inspect Cuban prisons and jails.
In the five weeks since President Obama’s momentous decision on diplomatic relations, the Castro regime has arrested more Cuban dissidents—even several of those freed in their deal with Obama; demanded the end of the embargo; demanded termination of the Cuban Adjustment Act, under which Cuban refugees are paroled into our territory; and demanded that Cuba before removed from the list of terrorist states.
Also, in the last month, the number of Cubans climbing on to rickety rafts fleeing their country has more than doubled. It seems that they know what to expect from a regime that has been emboldened by Washington’s weakness. And, as my colleague José Cárdenas has said, they are voting with their oars.
All of this is entirely predictable. Those who know the intransigent nature of the Castro regime expect no meaningful steps toward liberalization of any kind—particularly because it already has been handed a major victory in exchange for doing nothing.
The normalization of diplomatic relations will have very little positive impact on the lives of Cubans, unless President Obama now rallies other countries to press for economic and political change. If he fails to do follow up with a vigorous pro-democracy campaign and fails to incorporate authentic Cuban voices into the ongoing dialogue process, his new approach on Cuba will be exposed as an amateurish blunder that prolonged the Castro dictatorship and accomplished little else.