Donald Trump has not always shown much interest in the promotion of human rights abroad. He has mindlessly praised the Chinese regime’s massacre at Tiananmen Square and expressed little concern about Vladimir Putin’s human rights-abusing thugocracy in Russia. On the other hand, he recently spoke out about the terrible human rights abuses that continue in Cuba.
A little more than a year ago, Barack Obama traveled to Cuba on a landmark visit. His Cuban sojourn came on the heels of several major shifts in our policy toward the Communist Caribbean island. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were restored, a good move for our country. Cuba now has an embassy in Washington, and the U.S. has one in Havana. Cuba was removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Several travel limits were eased, as were restrictions on U.S. banks’ activities on the island.
There was a good reason to seek changes. Fifty years of hostility between the United States and Cuba had done little to improve the human rights situation on the island, which remained appalling. Ditto for the country’s sclerotic, state-run economy, which had left millions mired in abject poverty. It was time for a new approach.
Unfortunately, the new approach has not led Cuba to alter its ways in the least. The political system remains grotesquely oppressive; nearly 10,000 political arrests were reported in 2016 alone, and free speech remains just a dream. (Almost 500 political arrests occurred even as President Obama was visiting Cuba.)
Perhaps needless to say, the Castro regime still refuses to hold free and fair elections. The economy, meanwhile, has remained tightly controlled.
President Trump, recognizing Cuba’s failure to budge, announced new Cuba policies in Miami last week. Crucially, he did not roll back all of the reforms that President Obama implemented. (Though in typical Trump fashion, the president was rather dishonest about this — he claimed, falsely, that he was “canceling” Obama’s policies.) For example, the embassies will remain open and direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba will continue to operate. That’s wise; it would be foolish to initiate another counterproductive deep freeze.
But President Trump announced his administration will crack down on the kinds of trips Americans can take to Cuba. (Pure tourism wasn’t permitted even under Obama, but this rule went largely unenforced.) The Trump administration will also impose restrictions on the kinds of business Americans can conduct on the island. The State Department is currently at work on a list of Cuban businesses that are controlled by the regime’s military and security services; Americans will be forbidden from doing business with them.
This seems an appropriate threading of the needle. Tourism provides funding to the repressive regime; likewise, the Cuban military and security services are the tools with which the police state is enforced.
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As the president put it during his announcement, “To the Cuban government, I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves to political and economic freedoms, return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard.” The people of Cuba would benefit greatly if their oppressors would begin to heed such cries for human rights and elemental justice.