Cuba visit provides a key test of the 'Obama doctrine'
By GREGORY KORTE | USA Today | Published: March 21, 2016
HAVANA (Tribune News Service) — It's a key tenet of what might be called the Obama Doctrine: That engaging with isolated authoritarian regimes can bring about greater prosperity, peace, democracy and human rights.
It's been credited with initial success in Myanmar (also known as Burma), widely viewed as a failure in China and met with controversy in Iran.
Now that doctrine faces a key test in Cuba, where Obama landed Sunday for a three-day visit that will upend decades of history and could fundamentally transform life on the island.
Obama's point man on Cuba, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, articulated the strategy on Cuba this way: "We believe that by opening up space — opening up space for exchange, dialogue, connectivity, commercial opening, entrepreneurship, exchanges with civil society — that will help empower the Cuban people to live better lives, to be more connected not just with the United States but with the wider world and, again, to continue to build a future of greater opportunity."
Obama brings to Havana a variety of diplomatic tools: 11 American CEOs eager to make deals in a newly emerging market; the possibility of further lifting of decades-old restrictions on trade and travel; and even a shared love of baseball.
In some ways, the president is swimming against more than six decades of history. The complicated relationship between the United States precedes the Cold War, and to many Cubans still has echoes of nationalist sentiments going back to the Spanish-American War.
With the Casto brothers now in their 80s, Obama is betting that the opening to Cuba is on the verge of a societal transition that never took hold in other communist nations.
"Sometimes people ask me, 'Well, you have an embassy in China. You have engagement with China.' And China obviously, in many ways, is moving in a bad direction on human rights," Rhodes recently told a Cuban-American group in Miami.
"Part of what’s so different about Cuba is this community, and this proximity, and this cultural affinity between our two countries. Also, we have a lot of confidence in the Cuban people."
Congressional critics of Obama's approach say the president is putting his faith in a Cuban regime that can't be trusted, and the benefits of increased trade and travel will only serve to further entrench the Castro government.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said Obama should insist that Cuba agrees to extradite U.S. fugitives — including a woman responsible for killing a New Jersey police officer in 1973 — and that Cuba releases political prisoners and stops doing business with North Korea.
"Whether you agree or disagree with Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, which I think is one of the worst foreign policy mistakes we’ve seen in decades, and if you agree or disagree with Burma, Cuba is different," Diaz-Balart said. "With Burma he insisted on conditions that had to take place before we could begin to normalize relations. In the case of Cuba, he asked for nothing."
Or, as Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., put it on the Senate floor last week: "The simple truth is deals with the devil require the devil to deal."
In Myanmar, the Obama administration received concessions from the military junta even before talks began on normalizing relations. One key provision required Americans investing there to report who they were doing business with, their relationship to the government and how workers are treated.
Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of State in the Obama administration, said that model of "principled engagement" could work in Cuba — if given a chance.
"We're a long way away from getting there on Cuba. The human rights record is not good. The Castros are still in control," he said. "But it really is a society in transition."
There's an undeniable government-to-government element to Obama's trip. He'll meet with President Raúl Castro on Monday and will attend a state dinner. The White House is also reaching out to dissidents and to the Cuban people in a speech that will be televised across the island on Tuesday. Many of the restrictions already lifted are focused on people-to-people contacts, and Obama's strategy is to strengthen those ties so that even closer relations become inevitable.
There have been small steps by the Cuban government. On Thursday, it removed a 10% charge on swapping dollars for "convertible" pesos, a second currency Cuba developed in 2004 as it banned greenbacks from the island. It's released some political prisoners — but also re-arrested many of them.
Even last week, Cuban rhetoric continued to insist that it was up to the United States to show some goodwill.
“If the United States government wants to benefit the Cuban people, lift the the blockade,” Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez said.
That's Obama's ultimate goal. But the blockade — an economic embargo first imposed in the Kennedy administration and enforced and expanded by Democratic and Republican presidents through George W. Bush — can only be lifted by Congress. As if to underscore the importance of Congress in the effort, Obama is accompanied on his trip by 39 lawmakers mostly sympathetic to his strategy.
In the meantime, Obama is hoping to build enough momentum that even a hard-line Republican successor would find it difficult to close off the island once again.
"We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible," Rhodes said.
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