President Obama is planning to visit Cuba for a host of very good reasons.
His visit will evoke an outpouring of gratitude from the Cuban people which, by itself, will reverberate across the island for a long time to come.
In between his arrival and departure, the President can consolidate and expand his historic opening of U.S. policy- by speaking to the highest aspirations of the Cuban people, listening to their views, highlighting the benefits of his new policy to U.S. interests, and encouraging Cuba’s leadership to use his remaining time in office to resolve obstacles to full normalization.
From the moment his trip was announced, those with the most invested in the Cold War policies of the past established metrics for the trip to frame it as a failure before it even took place.
Small wonder fierce critics like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) could barely contain their excitement upon hearing news that an advance trip by Secretary of State John Kerry was cancelled due to disagreements between the governments on the subject of human rights.
What happened? The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Mr. Kerry scratched a visit to Havana for “a human rights dialogue” and consultations to lay the groundwork for the President’s trip later this month.
Sources told Reuters “the trip had been canceled because U.S. and Cuban officials were deep in negotiations on issues including which dissidents Obama might see in Havana and that a trip in the timeframe Kerry had mentioned was not seen as constructive.
An official also told the Los Angeles Times, “there was not ‘common agreement’ between the State Department and Cuban counterparts on aspects of Kerry’s trip, including his ability to meet with dissidents.”
John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement, “The secretary is still interested in visiting in the near future, and we are working with our Cuban counterparts and our embassy to determine the best time frame.”
What’s really going on? The Los Angeles Times was probably right when it wrote, the “back and forth over human rights is another sign of how prickly U.S.-Cuba relations remain despite the restoration of diplomatic ties.”
Just how prickly? Earlier this week, Antony Blinken, the Deputy Secretary of State, told the U.N. Human Rights Council, “We are increasingly concerned about the government’s use of short-term detentions of peaceful activists,” and added, “”We call on the Cuban government to stop this tactic as a means of quelling peaceful protest.”
According to state media, Cuban diplomats reacted with indignation to Blinken’s remarks, leading one veteran observer to suggest, the Cubans wanted to put Kerry in his place, and so suggested that the timing of his advance trip was not convenient.
The cancellation could reflect anger that will pass, a persistent Cuban resistance to interference by the U.S. in its internal affairs, or disagreements inside official Cuba over how much to give on the core question of human rights.
It could be some or all of these not to mention the number of plates Cuban officials are spinning given the upcoming visits by President Obama and by Mr. Kerry’s European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, trying to wrap up a Cuba-EU framework agreement, followed by a meeting of the Cuban Communist Party’s 7th Congress – all in a two-month period.
So, when Obama’s critics say, we told you so, and reports suggest that the Kerry cancellation could put the President’s trip “on the rocks,” are they right?
We don’t think so. It’s no state secret that human rights represent a profound area of disagreement between Cuba’s government and the United States. The obstacle to progress has been our reluctance to engage Cuba in respectful diplomacy to sort these differences out.
Mr. Kerry is coming to Cuba with President Obama. He has already spoken with Bruno Rodriquez, Cuba’s foreign minister, as the Miami Herald reported this afternoon, and both reiterated their commitment to a successful Obama trip.
We agree with Bill LeoGrande who wrote in the New York Times the President’s critics “have it backward: Mr. Obama has not given up on human rights in order to pursue normalization; he is pursuing normalization as a path to improving human rights.”
Of course, his harshest critics want President Obama to be humiliated by Cuba’s hardliners or to cancel his trip. Fourteen months of diplomacy has taken us far farther than the fifty plus years of sanctions and isolation, their preferred policy, ever could. As Chris Sabatini wrote so aptly, this trip is “Obama’s chance to turn the page on that sad history and to demonstrate that Cuba’s future is for the Cubans to decide.”
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