Cuba One Year After Obama's Olive Branch
Thousands of political arrests, migrants flee, and Russia wants in.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Dec. 20, 2015 4:13 p.m. ET
This month marks the first anniversary of President Obama's unilateral
rapprochement with Cuba. Upon making the Dec. 17 announcement, the Obama
administration immediately moved to ease restrictions on American travel
to the island and, by extension, boost revenues for the owners of its
tourist industry: the Cuban military.
In May the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of
terrorism, even though the dictator Gen. Raúl Castro harbors known
terrorists, including the U.S. fugitive Joanne Chesimard, once a member
of the now defunct Black Liberation Army and a convicted cop-killer.
In August the U.S. reopened an embassy in Havana. Last week it announced
a bilateral agreement to restore direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba.
Cuba's dissidents have been hard hit. Days after the new U.S. policy was
announced, Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban performance artist known as El
Sexto, was arrested for mocking the Castros. He spent 10 months in jail,
and Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience.
The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National
Reconciliation documented 7,686 political arrests in 2015 through Nov.
30. On that day Mr. Maldonado summarized the effects of the Obama
détente: "There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away
too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,
echoes those sentiments. "I was particularly shocked," he said last
week, "that a number of people, including members of the Ladies in
White," a dissident group, "were arrested on Human Rights Day, on 10
December. This shows an extraordinary disdain for the importance of
human rights on the part of the Cuban authorities."
In 2014 Cuba passed a new foreign-investment law to boost capital
inflows. Yet the government retained the power to confiscate assets for
"public" or "social" ends, and it has gained a reputation for
arbitrarily jailing foreign businessmen. Writing in the fall 2015 issue
of World Affairs, José Azel, a senior scholar at the University of
Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, noted that
despite the investment law's "vaulting language, more than a year later
only a handful of investments have been approved."
Perhaps capitalists are not all that important when Russia is itching to
get back into Cuba in a big way. In 2014 Russian President Vladimir
Putin forgave $32 billion in Cuban debt to the Soviet Union. Then he
converted the remaining $3.5 billion due Moscow into a line of credit
for energy and industrial projects on the island.
In return, among other things, the Kremlin gets to use Cuba to establish
a station supporting Russia's global navigation satellite system
(Glonass), a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). In a
Nov. 17 website post for the Cuban Transition Project at the University
of Miami, research associate Hans de Salas-del Valle observed that "the
installation of a signals facility in Cuba is part of a broader strategy
to integrate Cuba into Russia's space program." He added that "Moscow
has publicly expressed interest in establishing a satellite launch site
Mr. Obama agrees with Raúl that the U.S. should lift the embargo. But
Cuba can already buy food and medicine from the U.S. and, practically
speaking, there are few limits on American travel, though such travel is
disguised as "cultural exchange." What's left of the embargo is a ban on
access to bank credit, and legal claims for almost $8 billion in
property stolen by the revolution.
The Castros have a solution to the latter. They claim the embargo cost
Cuba over $100 billion since 1959, so the U.S. actually owes them.
That's laughable. What's not so funny is Cuba's credit score. Even after
the Russian write-down, Havana is still in arrears to the rest of the
world—ex-U.S.—on some $85 billion of debt. Countries are not lining up
to lend more. The Castros need a new mark. That's where Mr. Obama comes in.
Cuba's economy, heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil and China aid, is
unable to support the nation. According to Mr. de Salas-del Valle, "the
assumption that economic engagement with the Castro regime will spare
the U.S. an immigration crisis across the Florida Straits appears to be
the underlying if unstated motivation for the White House's
unprecedented courtship of Raúl Castro." If so, it's a gross
miscalculation. The policy has emboldened the dictator.
Some 4,000 Cuban migrants trying to get to the U.S. are now trapped in
Costa Rica because Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Castro pal,
will not allow them to move north. They're fleeing tyranny for sure. But
they couldn't have arrived there without, at a minimum, the tacit
approval of the Castro regime.
Those refugees are being used as Castro pawns to create a humanitarian
crisis and pressure the U.S. for credit and multilateral aid. Havana is
betting Mr. Obama will deliver.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com.
Source: Cuba One Year After Obama's Olive Branch - WSJ -