Later this week, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a calculated cooling of relations with Cuba because, he says, he’s troubled by the continued human rights abuses there.
Meanwhile in Russia this week, the police are stomping all over human rights by arresting leaders of antigovernment protests. There is no indication Trump is equally troubled by that.
Trump’s decision to roll back parts of President Barack Obama’s improvement of relations with Cuba, expected to be announced Friday, is a mistake, made worse by his disingenuous explanation for doing so. He would have you believe he’s acting out of principle, but his motives are largely political.
Trump is making good on a campaign pledge to Cuban-Americans whose votes put him over the top in Florida in the presidential election.
He also is currying favor with influential Florida Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio has made it clear that his support for the White House’s policy agenda hinges in part on the president taking a harder line on Cuba. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart openly acknowledges that he extracted assurances from Trump that he would get tougher on Cuba before he, the congressman, would agree to support the president’s unpopular health care overhaul.
Human rights is “something that’s very strong to him,” Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said last week. “It’s one of the reasons that he’s reviewing Cuba policy.”
That must come as news to anybody who’s paying attention. Trump has repeatedly praised autocrats who keep their countrymen under a cruel thumb, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. In a speech last month to a gathering of autocratic Arab leaders, Trump handed out a moral free pass: “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others.”
Except, apparently, Cuba.
Without a doubt, Cuba continues to be a chronic abuser of human rights. Thousands of political opponents are jailed each year. Censorship is the norm.
Yet a half century of diplomatic and economic isolation by the United States has failed to compel the Castro regime — first Fidel and now brother Raul — to ease up.
Taking a different tact, the Obama administration in 2014 agreed with Cuba to a reopening of embassies and to an easing of an embargo on trade and travel. Normalizing relations has been a boon to the United States, opening a new market for farm products and other goods. It’s also been terrific for Cuba’s future if you think, as we do, that a healthy jolt of capitalism is just what’s needed to alter the island’s creaky Cold War mindset.
Twenty percent of the Cuban economy is now in private hands. Cubans finally can go online. Commercial flights, full of American tourists and entrepreneurs, crisscross daily above the Straits of Florida.
Trump reportedly does not intend to reverse the Obama outreach completely. He will, for one, keep open the American embassy in Havana. And the Cuban government signaled Monday that it’s up for brokering a new deal, which is promising all around.
A robust exchange of people, ideas and goods is the best antidote to authoritarianism.