On Cuba, the Obama/Biden Policy Was Right, Trump's Is Wrong.

By Glenn Sacks

Venezuela and Cuba have become the battleground in the fight for Florida in the November presidential election. President Trump is being slammed in Florida for his reasonable statement that he would consider meeting embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.

Trump is also in trouble for expressing mixed emotions about Juan Guaidó, who Venezuela’s National Assembly declared the country’s acting president in January 2019. Guaidó has enjoyed extensive American assistance and, despite having openly worked with a foreign power to overthrow his own government, hasn’t even been arrested. Yet after 17 months Guaidó hasn’t accomplished his goals. Trump probably feels Guaidó is, in Trumpspeak, a “loser.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden jumped on Trump’s Venezuela comments with Spanish radio ads in Miami attacking Trump for his willingness to meet with “yet another dictator -- this time Nicolas Maduro…this November, Floridians are going to hold Trump accountable.”

Trump, who could have used this opportunity to be the adult in the room for a change, instead tried to outpander Biden. Trump’s campaign accused Biden of having “palled around with Maduro,” and recited a list of actions Trump has taken against the Maduro government.

Despite the sparring over Venezuela, the battle to win the Cuban vote will center around the Obama/Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach to Cuba, a policy which Biden recently reaffirmed. Obama/Biden restored diplomatic relations with Cuba after 54 years, lifted some restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances, and successfully moved to eliminate the preposterous inclusion of Cuba on the US "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list. Obama traveled to Cuba, the first US president in 88 years to do so.

Trump has rolled back much of Obama’s loosening of restrictions and has hit Biden hard over Cuba. Trump campaign deputy communications director Ali Pardo says Biden’s “administration praised Raúl Castro, giving the Cuban government a pass despite its horrific human rights record…he’s selling out the Cuban and Venezuelan people.”

Much Republican criticism of Obama/Biden’s normalization of relations centered on human rights and the famous Obama-Raul Castro press conference in March 2016. When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Castro about political prisoners, Castro snapped, “What political prisoners? Give me a name or names…[and] they will be released before tonight ends.” 

This was derided by Americans, who have long been conditioned to view Cuba as a Latin gulag, and the Obama administration took much grief over it. Yet at the time of the conference Amnesty International had not identified any current prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Its most current report identifies six, though doubtless there are more. Cuba released 53 prisoners in 2015 after Obama announced a move towards improving relations. The Cuban government harasses its opponents and arrests them, but usually for short periods of time, generally overnight, as it did before, during, and after Obama’s visit.

According to Amnesty International’s latest report, Cuba’s “independent media projects continued to operate” but “those working at alternative online news sources were at risk of harassment and arbitrary detention…In October, over a dozen independent Cuban media sites issued a statement calling for an end to a ‘wave of repression’ against the independent press.”

Castro didn't bother to deny that Cuba’s dictatorship restricts freedom of expression, instead arguing that no country complies with all rights, and “some countries comply [with] some rights, other[s] comply [with] others. And we are among these countries.”

Castro also condemned America’s “political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.” A look at the human rights situation in many Latin American and Asian countries that the US has close ties to shows that, if anything, “double standards” is putting it mildly. For example:

  • In Honduras, Amnesty International says, “Honduran security forces brutally repressed protests between April and June [2019]. Human rights defenders continued to be subjected to attacks, including killings and the misuse of criminal proceedings against them.”
  • In Haiti, according to the UN, over 80 Haitians were killed, many at the hands of the police, during two periods of unrest last year. A number of journalists were also injured and killed.
  • In Jamaica, Amnesty notes, “The number of killings by law enforcement officials remained high.”
  • In Brazil, according to the New York Times, last year the police in one city alone, Rio de Janeiro, executed 1,814 citizens. Many of the victims analyzed by the Times “were shot in the back…immediately raising questions about the imminent threat required to justify such killings.” In none of the killings the Times analyzed did a police officer sustain a wound at the hands of those killed.
  • In Mexico, Amnesty explains, “Human rights defenders and journalists were harassed, attacked and killed” and the right to freedom of assembly is “threatened.”
  • In the Philippines, where Trump has praised the Duterte government, Amnesty notes, “Human rights defenders critical of the government were increasingly harassed and vilified. The prevailing climate of impunity fueled an increase in killings of activists for their political views.”
  • In Colombia, Amnesty notes “killings of human rights activists and defenders reached historic levels in 2019.”
  • In Saudi Arabia—a major buyer of American weaponry under both the Obama and Trump administrations—Amnesty reports “escalated repression…[they] prosecuted dozens of government critics, human rights defenders, including women’s rights activists…authorities used the death penalty extensively…[some] were executed following grossly unfair trials.”

Extrajudicial killings are perhaps the worst crime a government can commit, and Amnesty International lists numerous countries that commit this offense. Cuba is not one of them.

The US also has a ghastly record of supporting and arming murderous dictatorships in Latin America in the three decades after the Cuban Revolution. Few in Latin America take US claims to be defending “human rights” in Cuba to be anything but rank hypocrisy, if not outright lying. The Obama/Biden policy was a reasonable attempt to cut through the “human rights” pretense that fools few outside US borders. 

Trump’s Florida strategy is clear— linking Biden to the Cuban government and what NBC describes as “a constant barrage of attacks calling Biden a socialist or a communist.” Trump Director of Communications Tim Murtaugh says Biden “wants to return to Cuba appeasement. Coddling dictators is what Joe Biden does.”

America’s punitive actions towards Cuba are supposedly being done to benefit the Cuban people, but nobody I’ve met in Cuba is happy about American policy. While Cubans value many of the benefits which socialism has given them, such as education, healthcare, more or less full employment, and cheap rent and food, it is also clear they are weary of shortages of consumer goods and a food ration which “no alcansa” (is not sufficient). Cubans want the embargo lifted, and they want the US to treat Cuba the way the rest of the world does—as a normal country. In the orgy of pandering we are seeing in this election, Biden, if he returns the US to the Obama/Biden Cuba policy, is correct. Trump instead seems committed to being wrong.