October 25, 2021

How Obama Became the Castros’ New Patron

How Obama Became the Castros’ New Patron

Havana — I’ve visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

Contrary to popular conception, traveling to Cuba as an American was not difficult before President Barack Obama’s announcement last December of “the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years.” All anyone had to do was transit through a third country and not disclose his visit to Cuba upon reentering through U.S. customs. It was the aura of the embargo that dissuaded Americans. Moreover, there have long been myriad legal exceptions for Americans to travel to Cuba: They merely had to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under one of twelve broad, rather vague, permitted categories, such as “educational” and “research.” “Tourism” as such was and remains prohibited. But since January, travelers to Cuba need not obtain any OFAC license at all. This essentially means that any American who wants to venture to Cuba, including those who plan to do nothing but sit on the beach all day and dance salsa all night, are now free to do so.

The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation. Preventing anything that may pose a threat to its continued existence — any material that might germinate the seed of independent thought within an individual Cuban’s mind — from making its way onto the island is therefore a priority. In light of the increased number of tourists visiting Cuba since the Obama administration lightened restrictions on American travel, a number that is expected only to grow with time, the Castro regime has had to beef up its capabilities in this field. But judging from the headlines of the Cuban Communist-party newspaper, Granma, which boasted of the dramatic rise in tourism on a recent cover of its weekly English edition, Havana doesn’t seem to mind.

The foremost concern of the 56-year-old Castro junta — the world’s oldest continuous regime — is self-perpetuation.

Some four months after President Barack Obama made his announcement, I visited Cuba, wanting to find out what its democratic dissidents had to say about the new winds from Washington. Given the course of American foreign policy over the past six years, which has seen Washington “reset” relations with a variety of implacably hostile regimes, the proclamation of a new policy toward Cuba was hardly surprising. Obama had signaled his intention to effect such a transformation as early as the 2008 presidential campaign, when he vowed to negotiate directly with a host of American adversaries and declared that “we’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change it.” Though Cuba-watchers assumed a shift of some sort was coming, the way in which the new policy came about and its list of particulars took many by surprise.

Obama’s December 17 declaration followed 18 months of secret negotiations between the president and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, who took the reins of power after his older brother Fidel fell ill in 2008. Even senior State Department officials involved in Latin American affairs were kept in the dark about the negotiations, which were led by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser in his mid 30s with no official diplomatic experience but who does possess an MFA in creative writing from New York University. This was the man Obama put in charge of negotiations with Cold War–hardened Cuban Communist apparatchiks, and it shows.

In exchange for the release of Alan Gross, an elderly USAID contractor arrested and accused of espionage in 2009, the United States released the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five,” a posse of spies sent to infiltrate the Miami Cuban-exile community in the late 1990s. Washington insisted that Gross was not a spy, and so in order to avoid tying his release to the freeing of the Cuban agents, Havana agreed to deliver a longtime American-intelligence asset it had imprisoned. Gross’s release from a prison sentence he ought never to have served in the first place and that nearly killed him was officially presented as an unrelated act of goodwill.

This swap of prisoners was the only part of Obama’s rapprochement in which Havana had to reciprocate, and lopsidedly at that. Moreover, it was just a prelude to the real meat of the Obama announcement: a loosening of the trade and travel restrictions America has imposed on Cuba, a collection of measures enforced through six statutes colloquially known as the “embargo.” The relaxed travel policies, the pending opening of embassies, the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, the restoration of limited economic activity — all longtime goals of the Cuban regime — were declared without any corresponding demands that Havana change its conduct. Indeed, in his speech announcing the new Cuba policy, Obama essentially admitted that he would have ushered in these unilateral changes much earlier had it not been for the “obstacle” that the imprisonment of an American citizen presented to his grand plans. To fend off accusations that it was giving away something for nothing, the administration claimed that the regime would release 53 political prisoners identified on a State Department list. In January, after weeks of saying it would not publicize the list, State provided the names to select members of Congress, revealing that some of the individuals had been freed before December 17, others were close to finishing their sentences, and a few had already been rearrested. Indeed, in Cuba, as in all authoritarian societies, the door to prison is a revolving one. In March, 610 people were arrested on political charges.