Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cuba

Obama’s Still In Charge But Also Still Failing

President Obama used the opening statement for his end of year press conference to boast of his achievements even if many of the questions revolved around his lackluster response to the North Korean cyber terror attack on Sony. But the main theme of most of the coverage of the president today centered on the theme that he has responded to his party’s landslide defeat in the midterm elections by seeking to revive his presidency with unilateral actions. These initiatives, such as his opening to Cuba and executive orders on immigration show he’s still in charge and capable of using his power and establishing his legacy despite the opposition of Congress and even the majority of Americans. But while the mainstream media is applauding the signs of life out of White House that appeared dead in the water last month, this recent surge of activity should not be mistaken for policy success. Though any president has the ability to act whenever he wants, the same failures that have dogged him during his first six years in office haven’t disappeared.

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President Obama used the opening statement for his end of year press conference to boast of his achievements even if many of the questions revolved around his lackluster response to the North Korean cyber terror attack on Sony. But the main theme of most of the coverage of the president today centered on the theme that he has responded to his party’s landslide defeat in the midterm elections by seeking to revive his presidency with unilateral actions. These initiatives, such as his opening to Cuba and executive orders on immigration show he’s still in charge and capable of using his power and establishing his legacy despite the opposition of Congress and even the majority of Americans. But while the mainstream media is applauding the signs of life out of White House that appeared dead in the water last month, this recent surge of activity should not be mistaken for policy success. Though any president has the ability to act whenever he wants, the same failures that have dogged him during his first six years in office haven’t disappeared.

There’s no doubt that those who were completely writing off the president’s ability to influence events after the beating Democrats took were exaggerating. Though his policies, which he said were on the ballot, were repudiated, Congress in the hands of Republicans and his personal favorability ratings continuing to head south, the president remains the most powerful man in the world. With the vast power of the federal government at his disposal and no limits on his ability to act, save those specifically charted out by the Constitution and Congress, any president can dominate any news cycle or make a wide variety of decisions that can not easily be reversed by either the legislature or the judiciary.

Moreover, unlike some of his predecessors, Obama’s personality is such that he views checks on his actions, whether in the form of Congressional action or the verdict of the ballot box, as challenges to be met rather than judgments that must be respected. Just as this is a top-down administration in which the Cabinet acts as a body of sycophants and middlemen rather than advisors, this is not a president who listens to advice or criticism that doesn’t conform to his original ideas. It should therefore come as no surprise that now that he is faced with a Congress controlled by his opponents, Obama should come to the conclusion that Constitutional boundaries should be ignored in his zeal to do, as he likes.

But his ability to act on his own should not be mistaken for actual policy successes.

On immigration, the president has finally done what some of his supporters wanted in terms of granting amnesty to more than 5 million illegal aliens and there is very little that is effective that his critics can do about it.

On Cuba, the new Congress can block funding for a new embassy in Havana, refuse to lift the embargo or confirm a new ambassador. But much of the new opening to the despotic regime will go one no matter what Congress says.

Looking ahead to other possible presidential actions, if he makes enough concessions and the Iranians are feeling generous, Obama may get a nuclear deal with the Islamist state. That, too, will be interpreted as a sign of life in what would otherwise be considered a lame duck presidency.

But none of this will change the fact that Obama’s ideological fixation with outreach to tyrants has not made the world better or increased America’s security or influence. To the contrary, with ISIS on the rise in the Middle East, Iran successfully challenging for regional hegemony via its successes in Syria, its alliance with Hamas and its intimidation of moderate Arab nations, and likely to gain U.S. acquiescence to it becoming a nuclear threshold state, Obama is leaving the world a more dangerous place than when he entered the White House. Nor will his Cuban gambit make the island a more democratic or free place.

On domestic policy, his admirers cite his immigration executive orders as a sign that he can govern despite the opposition of Congress. But by acting in this extralegal fashion, Obama has actually doomed for the foreseeable future any chance of working out a compromise with Republicans to pass some kind of immigration reform. Flexing his muscles in this fashion and showing his contempt for the law has convinced even many moderate Republicans that he can’t be trusted to enforce any legislation that he doesn’t like or benefit from. Nor will the problems that he postponed in the implementation of ObamaCare but which will begin to be felt in 2015 do much to bolster confidence in his judgment or the wisdom of his efforts.

So while the last month has been full of presidential sound and fury, these actions only mask a deeper malaise that won’t be fixed by Obama’s characteristic hubris about his actions. The failures of his first six years still hang over this presidency and are why he remains deeply unpopular. He will retain the ability to impact the country until the moment his successor takes the oath of office. But no one should mistake this flurry of activity for presidential success. As the months wind down in what he termed today the fourth quarter of his time in the White House, Obama will be relevant but his failures will continue to haunt the nation and cloud his legacy.

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Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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A Bad Day at the Office for Nicolas Maduro

If you want evidence that the Cuban regime is the real master of Venezuela’s murky and corrupt politics, look no further than the statement issued by the beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, in response to the coming normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties announced yesterday.

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If you want evidence that the Cuban regime is the real master of Venezuela’s murky and corrupt politics, look no further than the statement issued by the beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, in response to the coming normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties announced yesterday.

“I am very happy,” Maduro gushed, according to a report from the regime’s English-language mouthpiece, Venezuelanalysis. “We must recognize the gesture of President Barack Obama, a brave and necessary gesture in history. He has taken a step, perhaps the most important one of his presidency.”

Given that as recently as March, Maduro was warning Obama that it “would be the worst mistake of your life to authorize the assassination of President Nicolas Maduro and fill Venezuela with violence,” this marks progress of sorts. In recent weeks, Maduro has even been cautiously flattering Obama, arguing that while the Eric Garner ruling demonstrates that racism in America has gotten worse under its first black president, “I respect Obama personally. But I think he’s a hostage of the real powers in the United States, and he decided not to fight. He’s tired, exhausted.”

It would, however, be a grave mistake to conclude that the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will stabilize the chavista regime, whatever Maduro says. The Venezuelan president, who spent the years 1986 and 1987 receiving his political training at the sinisterly-named “School of Political Education” in Havana, has long been dismissed by the Venezuelan opposition as a Cuban agent controlled by the Castro brothers, and therefore forbidden from openly criticizing Cuba’s ruling Communists.

Were Maduro permitted to say what he’s really thinking, we would see a decidedly different reaction. For the last fifteen years, and with the active collusion of first Hugo Chavez, and then Maduro, Cuba has treated Venezuela as a colony. By supplying the Cubans with 100,000 barrels of oil per day, a subsidy worth on average around $7 billion annually, the chavistas rescued Fidel Castro from the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which meant that Cuba could no longer ship its sugar to the USSR at an inflated price.

Although the Venezuelans provided the Cubans with salvation economically, from the very beginning it was Havana that called the shots politically. In his biography of Chavez, Comandante, the journalist Rory Carroll recounted a conversation with a leading Chavez confidante identified only as “Andres.” “The old fox sniffed him right out,” Andres related, as he described the first meeting between Fidel and a starstruck Chavez. “He recognized Chavez’s potential straightaway. And his weaknesses.”

The oil arrangement was a clear win for the Cubans. As well as securing an oil supply without having to part with much-needed hard currency, the barter deal agreed with Caracas allowed the Cubans to send military and intelligence officers to Venezuela along with the doctors and nurses who arrived there in lieu of cash payments for the oil.

At the same time, though, Cuba’s control of Venezuela was never absolute. When Chavez was first diagnosed with the cancer he eventually succumbed to in a Cuban hospital in 2013, The Economist presciently observed that “Venezuela apart, nowhere would his departure from office be felt more strongly than in Cuba.” At that time, not only was the Venezuelan opposition finally getting its act together, but fissures within the regime were also becoming visible. The Cubans rightly feared that without Chavez, they would eventually have to look elsewhere for a lifeline.

Almost two years after Chavez’s death, the value of Venezuela to Cuba’s future has declined precipitously. Maduro now faces a real rival in the form of Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, who does not share his fealty to the Cubans and is closely tied to the generals and other military officers who make their money from narcotics trafficking. And there is a third faction too: the colectivos, chavista paramilitaries based in poor urban neighborhoods, are increasingly unhappy with Maduro, who can no longer sustain the social programs launched by Chavez that won him the votes he needed to stay in power.

The economic outlook for Venezuela is as uncertain as the political one. With 96 percent of its dollar earnings coming from oil exports, the dramatic tumble in oil prices has boosted speculation that Caracas will default on its foreign debt and exposed the country’s isolation within OPEC, where the Saudis and Kuwaitis have made it plain that they are content to live with low oil prices for a while longer. What this means in concrete terms is that Venezuela loses $700 million a year for each $1 per barrel drop in oil prices.

No wonder, then, that the Cubans are now looking elsewhere–and specifically to the United States–for political and economic support. And no wonder that Maduro looks like an emperor with no clothes: after all, the Cuban subsidy was a major factor behind the shortage of basic goods and the rampant inflation within Venezuela. Maduro has precious little to justify the relationship cemented by his predecessor, especially now that the country is at its lowest point since Chavez took power. Indeed, the Venezuelan president cannot even rely on the Cubans to provide him with rhetorical support, as he attempts to combat a congressional bill that denies visas to and freezes the assets of those Venezuelan officials behind the repression of pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year.

“It looks like Raul [Castro] is cheating on Nicolas!” joked Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles after learning of the U.S.-Cuba deal. The chavistas “were never allies of the Castros as Chavez tried to make us believe for too many years,” wrote the dissident blogger, Daniel Duquenal. “We were just a Castro colony, a pawn with an accidental wallet to pluck.” Those reactions are fairly typical of how Venezuelans perceive the new climate between the U.S. and Cuba, and how skeptical they are of Maduro’s claim that he is delighted by the warming of ties.

Yet even if Maduro’s days are numbered, that does not imply that Venezuela’s democratic future is assured. Prominent opposition figures like Leopoldo Lopez, Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos remain incarcerated in jail, and the regime is determined that Maria Corina Machado, another outspoken opposition figure, will share the same fate. Obama may have pulled Cuba back from the precipice, but, as always, the Venezuelans will be left to their own devices.

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On Cuba, Rubio Runs Rings Around Obama

The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

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The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

First, Rubio’s Cuban heritage–his parents fled the island–gives the senator’s objections an authenticity most others lack. This is personal for him. Second, it turns the subject back not only to foreign policy, on which Rubio is more fluent than virtually any other elected politician in the country right now, but also on a specific subject that is right in his wheelhouse. Rubio’s expertise means that while Obama is stumbling through statements filled with straw men and defensive and shallow rationalizations, Rubio can step up to the microphone with almost no notice and run circles around Obama.

Which he did. Here is the video of Rubio’s press conference after yesterday’s announcement. The confidence and the command of the issues are almost unfair to Obama: the president is just completely out of his league on this. He followed up with an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he points out that while there is a serious discussion to be had about the efficacy of America’s prevailing Cuba policy, that doesn’t justify what is obviously a naïve, poorly negotiated deal (an Obama specialty). Rubio writes:

The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime’s grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.

Of course, like all Americans, I am overjoyed for Alan Gross and his family after his release from captivity after five years. This American had been a hostage of the regime, and it was through his imprisonment that the Cuban regime again showed the world its cruel nature.

But the policy changes announced by President Obama will have far-reaching consequences for the American people. President Obama made it clear that if you take an American hostage and are willing to hold him long enough, you may not only get your own prisoners released from U.S. jails—as three Cuban spies were—you may actually win lasting policy concessions from the U.S. as well. This precedent places a new price on the head of every American, and it gives rogue leaders around the world more clear-cut evidence of this president’s naïveté and his willingness to abandon fundamental principles in a desperate attempt to burnish his legacy. There can be no doubt that the regime in Tehran is watching closely, and it will try to exploit President Obama’s naïveté as the Iranian leaders pursue concessions from the U.S. in their quest to establish themselves as a nuclear power.

Obama’s lack of knowledge about the world, and his refusal to take advice from anyone outside an inner circle that at this point could fit in a phone booth, is on full display in moments like this. And it also holds back his own side in these debates. As Rubio writes, there really is a debate to be had on U.S.-Cuba relations. But Obama is so clumsy and unknowledgeable that you wouldn’t know his side of this argument has merit. (It’s one reason why when Obama goes on speaking tours to promote a policy, that policy inevitably drops in popularity.)

Democrats need someone who understands foreign policy to step in at such times. Obama is just eroding whatever credibility they had.

Another reason Rubio benefits from this is that Obama needs Congress for some of the more significant parts of this policy shift. He needs the Senate, for example, to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. Rubio said he expects to be chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee next session. His message to the administration: “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’ll get an embassy funded.”

Republicans should not underestimate how much this helps Rubio maintain a high profile in opposition to Obama. The president has two years left, and for those two years Rubio will be the most important figure standing between Obama and a yet another of his capitulations to foreign dictators. Even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, he will establish his power base in the Senate and put himself in line to set the GOP’s congressional tone on foreign policy. And Democrats will simply have to produce a better foreign-policy mind than Obama’s if they’re going to compete with him.

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Yes, It’s Time to Lift the Cuban Embargo

Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

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Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

This is part of a broader effort by President Obama to reorder American diplomacy during the last two years of his presidency in keeping with his 2008 campaign pledge to talk to any dictator anytime without any preconditions. The centerpiece of his push is an effort to restore relations with Iran in return for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. That is a very bad idea because (a) Iran is certain to cheat on any such deal, (b) such a deal would not address Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East through the use of its terrorist proxies, and (c) such a deal would likely cause Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to launch their own nuclear weapons. More broadly, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens core American interests in a vital region of the world; it is also supporting the slaughter of more than 200,000 people in Syria. We should be trying to contain Iran rather than cuddling up to it.

Cuba is different. I recall going to Cuba a few years ago and finding a sad, decrepit relic state–a place where old American clunkers from the 1950s somehow stayed on the road, the buildings were falling down, and people lined up for hours to buy eggs. Its biggest ideological export these days seems to be doctors, not bombs. It’s hard to see this broken-down Communist has-been, ruled by a pair of geriatric brothers, as a major threat to American interests.

Once an exporter of revolution to Africa and Latin America, a trend made famous by Che Guevara, Cuba is now but a shadow of its old subversive self. It still remains a sponsor of terrorism but just barely. According to the State Department, Cuba remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list because of its links to the Colombian FARC and ETA groups but those are largely beaten and not much of a threat anymore; indeed Cuba is now facilitating peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. Certainly the groups sponsored by Cuba are not remotely as dangerous as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Asaib Ahl ah-Haq, and other Iranian proxies.

Cuba also remains a notorious human rights violator but its record is not as bad as Iran and it’s cheering to see that as part of the deal to restore relations with the U.S. it is releasing 53 political prisoners, in addition to two Americans who are being swapped for three Cuban spies held in the U.S. Certainly Cuba’s human-rights record is no worse than Vietnam, another Communist state with which the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Indeed over the years the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with many more noxious regimes including the Soviet Union–so why not Cuba?

The restoration of diplomatic relations will, in any case, deliver some benefits to the U.S. by allowing us to beef up the staff of the American interests section in Havana, thus increasing our ability to (at least in theory) subvert the regime through the promotion of human rights. Moreover the U.S. embargo on Cuba stays in effect, although President Obama is urging Congress to lift it.

After more than 50 years, it seems hard to argue that the embargo is doing much to undermine the rule of the Castro brothers. It’s time, at long last, to lift the embargo and see if it’s possible to do more to promote a post-Communist future for Cuba with openness than we have been able to accomplish with a standoffish attitude over the past half century.

This is one diplomatic initiative on Obama’s part that I can applaud. I just hope it will sate his appetite for diplomatic achievements before he makes ruinous concessions to the Iranians.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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Rubio Gives Harkin a Lesson in History

Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

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Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba. Sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise. He bragged about a number of things that he learned on his trip to Cuba that I’d like to address briefly. He bragged about their health care system, medical school is free, doctors are free, clinics are free, their infant mortality rate may be even lower than ours. I wonder if the senator, however, was informed, number one, that the infant mortality rate of Cuba is completely calculated on figures provided by the Cuban government. And, by the way, totalitarian communist regimes don’t have the best history of accurately reporting things. I wonder if he was informed that before Castro, Cuba, by the way, was 13th in the whole world in infant mortality. I wonder if the government officials who hosted him, informed him that in Cuba there are instances reported, including by defectors, that if a child only lives a few hours after birth, they’re not counted as a person who ever lived and therefore don’t count against the mortality rate.

I wonder if our visitors to Cuba were informed that in Cuba, any time there is any sort of problem with the child in utero they are strongly encouraged to undergo abortions, and that’s why they have an abortion rate that skyrockets, and some say, is perhaps the highest the world. I heard him also talk about these great doctors that they have in Cuba. I have no doubt they’re very talented. I’ve met a bunch of them. You know where I met them? In the United States because they defected. Because in Cuba, doctors would rather drive a taxi cab or work in a hotel than be a doctor. I wonder if they spoke to him about the outbreak of cholera that they’ve been unable to control, or about the three-tiered system of health care that exists where foreigners and government officials get health care much better than that that’s available to the general population….

I heard about their wonderful literacy rate, how everyone in Cuba knows how to read. That’s fantastic. Here’s the problem: they can only read censored stuff. They’re not allowed access to the Internet. The only newspapers they’re allowed to read are Granma or the ones produced by the government.

Then he set his sights on Venezuela:

It is shameful that many members of Congress who traveled to Venezuela and were friendly with Chavez, some even went to his funeral, sit by saying nothing while this is happening in our own hemisphere. And this wonderful Cuban paradise government that we heard about? This is what they support. Just this morning, the dictator that calls himself a president — never been elected to anything, Raul Castro — announced he is there for whatever they need to help them do this. 

I listen to this stuff about Cuba and I listen to what’s happening in Venezuela, they’re very similar. Not just in the repression part, but the economics part. You know Venezuela’s an oil-rich country with hardworking people? They have a shortage — we don’t have an embargo against Venezuela. They have a shortage of toilet paper and tooth paste. Why? Because they are incompetent. Because communism doesn’t work. They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day. 

Rubio showed pictures of the victims of Venezuela’s government crackdown, humanized them, and put the Venezuelan authorities on notice he would soon be outlining sanctions and other responses the United States government can take, setting Venezuela alongside Iran, North Korea, and, yes, Cuba.

There’s something amazing about having this conversation in 2014. There is of course a full discussion to be had on the virtues and effects of embargoes and sanctions. But you can detect a note of disbelief at the opening of Rubio’s response, before the intensity sheds it. Are there still those in the United States Congress so easily fooled by totalitarian propaganda? Yes, there are, apparently.

And that’s an important point. We’re not talking about the Sean Penns of the world. We’re talking about a five-term U.S. senator. Hopefully Harkin learned something from Rubio’s speech, though I doubt it. I imagine, however, many Americans learned something about Tom Harkin.

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It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

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The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

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Oh To Be Young and Socialist Again

If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

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If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

Any attempt to refight the political wars of the 1980s may be a futile endeavor, but the willingness of the press to allow de Blasio to paint his support for the Sandinistas as part of the journey that led him to the mayoralty bodes ill for the city. That’s not just because the Sandinista cause was largely discredited when they were finally forced by the stalemate in the fighting to face the people of Nicaragua in a democratic election. Their defeat at the polls vindicated the efforts of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to support the rebels who resisted the Marxists and exposed the group’s supporters like de Blasio as fronts for Communist killers.

That may not be a disqualifying attribute to many New York voters, but it ought to give pause to those whose livelihoods and safety will depend on de Blasio and the wrecking crew he brings to City Hall next January not demolishing all that Giuliani and Bloomberg accomplished in the last 20 years.

To those who are either too young or too deluded by liberal propaganda to know better, the struggle against the socialism that de Blasio backed was the most important battle fought in the last half of the 20th century. Those who aimed at stopping socialism were not trying to hurt the poor; they were defending human rights against a political cause that sacrificed more than 100 million victims on the Marxist altar. The verdict of history was delivered as the Berlin Wall fell and the “socialist motherland” collapsed, and along with it much of the ideological house of cards that liberals had built as they sought to discredit or defeat anti-Communists. It says a lot about de Blasio’s commitment to that vicious political faith that even after the Iron Curtain fell and the peoples of captive Eastern Europe celebrated the defeat of the Communist cause that he would make a pilgrimage to one of its last strongholds in Cuba to celebrate his marriage.

If de Blasio were willing to admit that much of what he said in defense of the Sandinistas and Cuba was wrong, there would be nothing to say now about his past other than to state that he had learned from it. But since he appears to be proud of his support for tyrants, it is fair game for his critics. More to the point, it is also worth asking just how much those experiences still influence a politician who will have at his disposal the vast powers of the mayoralty. 

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The Mockery of Cuba Sanctions Exceptions

Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

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Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:

White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.

One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of people-to-people and educational exchange appears to be interpreted liberally both by the Obama administration and by travel companies. This past week, I came across a “Journey to Cuba in 2013” brochure by the high-end travel company Travcoa. The brochure outlines a stellar 10-day itinerary, visiting Cienfugos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa Maria, Remedios, the Bay of Pigs, Havana, and San Luis, all for around $7,000. The tourism must be great, but the educational opportunities appear fleeting: after lunch at a small paladar, the group can talk to its owner; at a small coastal village, talk to fisherman about fishing; visit a school and learn about Cuba’s education system; and visit a Santería priest to learn about the Santería religion. The museum guide at the Bay of Pigs will offer a Cuban perspective of that aborted invasion; while at another museum, guests can learn about Cuba’s efforts to promote literacy. At a Havana night club, tourists can learn about Cuban jazz.

I do not mean to diminish Travcoa—I’ve never been on their tours, but I know a number of people who have and speak very highly of their experience. The company is simply fulfilling a service to meet a demand, and it is not alone in doing so, as any Google search will indicate. The fact of the matter, though, is that the educational exchange the company promotes does not differ much from what tourists on non-educational trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, or Central Asia might do.

Now, the wisdom of Cuba sanctions is another issue. I support the sanctions, and will push back on those who wish to dismantle them simply because they see them as a relic from the past. The major problem with lifting the sanctions at this point is that the main beneficiaries of tourist dollars will not be the Cuban people, but rather the government which owns and operates most of the tourist facilities at which most high-end tourists will stay. Indeed, from what I understand from Cuba watchers, it is not simply the government which is invested most deeply in these facilities but the Cuban military and Raul Castro himself. The idea of pumping money into an aging and decrepit dictatorship risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Obama administration is going to lift sanctions, however, it should simply declare its intention to do so, and defend its position against its critics. The idea that it can, however, with sleight of hand and an educational exemption eviscerate the remaining barriers to infusing the Castro regime with hard currency is an insult to intelligence, and diminishes legitimate educational exchanges elsewhere.

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About Those Cuban “Reforms” …

On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

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On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.

Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:

The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”

Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.

Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.

But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.

For example, this morning CNN reports:

Starting next year, Cubans traveling abroad will face fewer hurdles leaving the country.

The official news site Granma reported Tuesday that the Cuban government will no longer require a travel permit and a letter of invitation.

The move is part of the reforms that President Raul Castro promised when he took office in 2008.”

But don’t forget the fine print:

The new change, however, does not mean that anyone wanting to travel will get a passport.

‘The ordinary passport will be issued to the Cuban citizens who meet the requirements of the Migration Law,’ which is being modified, according to the report in Granma.

While the report does not say how the law will be altered, it does add that the government will fight brain — and money — drain ‘from the aggressive and subversive plans of the US government and its allies.’ It will do so by leaving in place measures to preserve ‘human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.'”

In other words, nothing is really changing, other than the verbiage.

With Raul Castro’s takeover of the Cuban government four years ago from his brother, many hoped that the totalitarian government would ease its grip on power, instituting reforms that could bring Cuba into the 21st century. Like with North Korea’s recent leadership change, we have seen nothing of the sort. Yesterday Max discussed how, despite some surface reforms instituted by the newly appointed Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains a wasteland for the majority of its citizenry. Cuba, like North Korea, has spent the majority of the last century ruled by a family that has no desire to give up the luxurious lifestyle they lead for the sake of democracy. Max explained it perfectly yesterday in regards to North Korea, and unfortunately, the same applies to Cuba: “Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as [insert Communist tyrant’s name here] remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.”

Sadly, as with the stories about North Korea’s relaxation of dress code standards to allow more Western attire, the media appears to have fallen for this distraction, playing right into the hands of yet another Communist dictator. For the victims of Castro and their family members in the West, it will soon become clear that today’s headlines don’t signify any shift from the status-quo.

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Cuba Anxiously Eyes Venezuelan Election

Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

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Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”

Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.

“Many see that things are not going well and have brought forward their decision to desert because they think the defeat of Chávez is imminent,” Yumar Gomez, a doctor who found his way to Miami, told El Universal. “And let me tell you… many don’t want to go back to Cuba.” Delia Garcia, a Cuban nurse, added: “Our leaders tell us that Chávez is not certain for October and say that the rate of desertions is now accelerating. That’s why I’m leaving. If there isn’t going to be any more misión in Venezuela, where will they send us then? To Burundi?”

The revelation that Havana’s communist rulers aren’t betting on a Chavez victory is another welcome boost for the Capriles campaign. After all, Chavez has never looked as vulnerable as he does now. His grandiose public works schemes are coming undone through the incompetence and corruption that inevitably accompanies the stuffing of political appointees into state-owned companies. For example, FONDEN, a Chavez-controlled fund that has spent $100 billion of Venezuelan oil revenue over the last seven years while bypassing the approval of the country’s congress, has come under fire for a range of misdemeanours, from abandoned building projects to the purchase of Russian fighter jets. And after a series of devastating fires and explosions at various oil installations, including one at the Amuay refinery in August in which more than 40 people were killed, it is hard to find a single Venezuelan who retains faith in PDVSA, the national oil company milked as a cash cow by Chavez.

As talk of an opposition victory on Sunday gathers pace, so does speculation that Chavez will consult the playbook of his close friend, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and manipulate the election, perhaps by intimidating voters in areas that lean towards Capriles, or even by stealing it outright. Last week, the Spanish newspaper ABC claimed that Chavez has been readying revolutionary militias, modeled on the feared Basij units in Iran, for mobilization in the event that he is defeated.

Still, as Diego Arria, the former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a leading opposition figure, pointed out in a recent interview with New York’s WABC radio, such action is unlikely to be successful without the backing of the Venezuelan armed forces. And so far, Venezuela’s military commanders, mindful that Chavez may shortly succumb to the cancer eating away at him, have stated that they will respect the choice of the voters.

Is the Chavez era coming to an end? One would be foolhardy to make that exact prediction, but even so, the signs all point to the Comandante emerging from Sunday’s election chastened, and the opposition further empowered.

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Is it Okay to Love a Murdering Dictator?

Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen will be using his day off to fly back to Florida today to hold a news conference tomorrow to make a public apology for his published remarks in which he spoke of his “love” for longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While the famously loquacious and largely unrestrained Guillen is entitled to his opinion, the fact that the institution that employs him understands that a public mea culpa is necessary illustrates that at least in southern Florida, expressing affection for a Communist murderer is not deemed acceptable behavior.

Guillen, a native of Venezuela who stirred up a much smaller controversy when he previously spoke of his admiration for that country’s authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez, has a reputation for shooting off his mouth about just about anything rather than being a political activist. Though Cuban-Americans are rightly up in arms about what he said and any hint of a boycott of the Marlins game would be disastrous for a franchise desperate to attract fans to their new ballpark, it is likely that Guillen will survive this mess. But what is interesting about this kerfuffle is the fact that it may be one of the last gasps of an effort to hold the Havana regime in opprobrium despite the efforts of many liberals (and the Obama administration) to lower the volume of protests about human rights in Cuba.

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Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen will be using his day off to fly back to Florida today to hold a news conference tomorrow to make a public apology for his published remarks in which he spoke of his “love” for longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While the famously loquacious and largely unrestrained Guillen is entitled to his opinion, the fact that the institution that employs him understands that a public mea culpa is necessary illustrates that at least in southern Florida, expressing affection for a Communist murderer is not deemed acceptable behavior.

Guillen, a native of Venezuela who stirred up a much smaller controversy when he previously spoke of his admiration for that country’s authoritarian leader Hugo Chavez, has a reputation for shooting off his mouth about just about anything rather than being a political activist. Though Cuban-Americans are rightly up in arms about what he said and any hint of a boycott of the Marlins game would be disastrous for a franchise desperate to attract fans to their new ballpark, it is likely that Guillen will survive this mess. But what is interesting about this kerfuffle is the fact that it may be one of the last gasps of an effort to hold the Havana regime in opprobrium despite the efforts of many liberals (and the Obama administration) to lower the volume of protests about human rights in Cuba.

Guillen is far from the only person who has given Castro some love lately. Hollywood leftists such as Sean Penn and Oliver Stone have lauded the Cuban regime and even mainstream media stars like Andrea Mitchell have bought into Michael Moore’s lies about the Communist regime’s health care system being better than that of the United States. For many liberals, focusing on Cuba’s lack of political freedom is an unwelcome throwback to the Cold War. The plight of Cubans who lack basic human rights and live in squalor largely due to their government’s Stalinist ideology means little to most Americans who have come to view the cause of Cuban freedom with indifference if not distaste. There’s little doubt that had Guillen stayed with the Chicago White Sox or gone to some other team without a potent Cuban-American constituency, he would not be on the hot seat on which he currently finds himself.

That alone is a reason to think that firing would be unfair even if it is difficult to sympathize with him. He is fortunate to have expressed sympathy for a mere Communist murderer rather than to have uttered anything that could be construed as racist. This is, after all, the 30th anniversary of the interview on ABC’s “Nightline” program in which Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis lost his job when he claimed African-Americans lacked the “necessities” to be baseball managers and executives. Though Campanis had earned far more goodwill in a long career of racial fair dealing than the obnoxious Guillen has ever done (Guillen dodged a similar bullet earlier in his career for uttering an anti-gay slur), his career vanished in an instant with one foolish and wrongheaded remark.

Those who cry for Guillen’s head will probably be disappointed, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. The practice of making celebrities walk the plank for saying the wrong thing in the wrong place for things for which they might otherwise get a pass for under other circumstances is not a particularly attractive aspect of American popular culture. But while I’m not sorry to see Guillen forced to apologize for his “love” for Castro, no one should be under the misapprehension that a sea change on attitudes toward the Cuban regime has not already happened. It is that willingness to appease the tyrants of Havana that we should be regretting more than a stupid comment by an overly talkative baseball manager.

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Pope’s Divisions Need Some Help in Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba presented a unique challenge to the Communist dictatorship that continues to oppress the island. Though Raul Castro met with the Pope and did his best to associate the regime with the religious spectacle of the public Mass, there was no mistaking the Pontiff’s message. Calling for “authentic freedom,” he said spiritual freedom isn’t possible without political liberty.

Yet while Pope Benedict’s words will inspire the Cuban people to hope for something better in the future, Cuba remains one of the least free nations on the planet. Reportedly, the Communist authorities took no chances about the papal visit encouraging agitation for freedom by arresting known dissidents and blocking their cell phone transmissions. The question now is whether Western intellectuals and others who have been campaigning for more trade with Cuba and efforts to normalize relations with the Castro government will draw the right conclusions from these events.

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Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba presented a unique challenge to the Communist dictatorship that continues to oppress the island. Though Raul Castro met with the Pope and did his best to associate the regime with the religious spectacle of the public Mass, there was no mistaking the Pontiff’s message. Calling for “authentic freedom,” he said spiritual freedom isn’t possible without political liberty.

Yet while Pope Benedict’s words will inspire the Cuban people to hope for something better in the future, Cuba remains one of the least free nations on the planet. Reportedly, the Communist authorities took no chances about the papal visit encouraging agitation for freedom by arresting known dissidents and blocking their cell phone transmissions. The question now is whether Western intellectuals and others who have been campaigning for more trade with Cuba and efforts to normalize relations with the Castro government will draw the right conclusions from these events.

Much of the recent discussion about Cuba in the United States has centered on the idea that American sanctions and continued attempts to isolate the island are counter-productive. It’s true that the Castro brothers and their minions have used the U.S. boycott to foster a sense of paranoia that has buttressed the Communists’ hold on power. But the idea that Cuban freedom can be won by American trade is a myth. In the best case scenario, the Communists might move toward a hybrid systems like China’s in which capitalism is encouraged while allowing the regime to maintain its vise-like grip on political power. The result might be more wealth but no freedom. That’s why the Pope’s clarion call for “authentic freedom” is so important.

Soviet mass-murderer Josef Stalin once mocked the power of the Papacy by asking how many divisions the Pope had. The answer was one that wouldn’t be properly understood in the Kremlin until a generation later when the courageous Pope John Paul II used his bully pulpit to advance the cause of liberty in Eastern Europe. But the Pope’s spiritual divisions didn’t topple the Berlin Wall by themselves. They needed the assistance of an American superpower whose leader wasn’t afraid to speak up for the cause of freedom.

But Pope Benedict can’t count on the assistance of a president like Ronald Reagan. In its three-plus years in office the Obama administration has been the least interested of any American government in a generation. Though U.S. officials asked the Vatican for assistance in securing the freedom of Alan Gross, an American who is unjustly incarcerated in Cuba, the Castro regime knows it need not fear a concerted push from Washington.

The Pope’s divisions in Cuba should not be underestimated but, like the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, they need active and vocal assistance from the United States. Were President Obama to prioritize Cuban freedom, the pressure on the weakened regime might make a difference. It’s time for this administration to put itself on the side of those actively working for the Cuban people, not businessmen looking to profit from cooperating with tyrants.

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Blue (State) Travel to Cuba

A friend has forwarded me a solicitation from the University of Michigan’s Alumni Association to join them on a “Cultural Connection” visit to Cuba. It is a depressing piece of moral blindness. For $3,845, Wolverines can enjoy an eight-day trip, complete with “a visit to a local health clinic” to “learn about socialized medicine and the delivery of social services in Cuba,” a trip to an art institute to “compare and contrast the role of the arts in Cuba and the United States” and “identify any differences in the opportunities for artistic expression,” and a “substantive discussion” with the management team of a dance company to explore “the political and financial challenges they face” (i.e. the U.S. embargo) in exporting Cuban dance culture. There is a good deal more in the same vein, including a visit to the Museum of the Revolution and dinner at the Restaurante Vieja Havana, “formerly the American Club,” but you get the picture.

It would be pleasant if moral blindness was all that was involved here, but sadly, it’s not. Michigan alumni who sign on are demonstrating the kind of sympathies that will bring them to the attention of Cuban intelligence which, as the Myers case showed, knows how to take advantage of gullible Americans with an academic bent. As a defector from the Cuban Intelligence Service noted in 2002, visitors from U.S. universities are targeted “very often and in a massive way. For example, there was recently a cruise ship in Cuba with students from the University of Pennsylvania.  There were hundreds of students who automatically became objects of interest to the CuIS. . . . [who] using covers from the Foreign Ministry, or any other governmental organization like ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) . . . . come into contact with students and even lodge where the foreign students lodge and participate with them in all their activities.” The essence of this visit, apart from
providing hard currency to the fading Castro regime and giving it a bit of blue-washing, is that the University of Michigan is naively signing on to have its alumni spied upon and tested for any willingness to betray the United States.

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A friend has forwarded me a solicitation from the University of Michigan’s Alumni Association to join them on a “Cultural Connection” visit to Cuba. It is a depressing piece of moral blindness. For $3,845, Wolverines can enjoy an eight-day trip, complete with “a visit to a local health clinic” to “learn about socialized medicine and the delivery of social services in Cuba,” a trip to an art institute to “compare and contrast the role of the arts in Cuba and the United States” and “identify any differences in the opportunities for artistic expression,” and a “substantive discussion” with the management team of a dance company to explore “the political and financial challenges they face” (i.e. the U.S. embargo) in exporting Cuban dance culture. There is a good deal more in the same vein, including a visit to the Museum of the Revolution and dinner at the Restaurante Vieja Havana, “formerly the American Club,” but you get the picture.

It would be pleasant if moral blindness was all that was involved here, but sadly, it’s not. Michigan alumni who sign on are demonstrating the kind of sympathies that will bring them to the attention of Cuban intelligence which, as the Myers case showed, knows how to take advantage of gullible Americans with an academic bent. As a defector from the Cuban Intelligence Service noted in 2002, visitors from U.S. universities are targeted “very often and in a massive way. For example, there was recently a cruise ship in Cuba with students from the University of Pennsylvania.  There were hundreds of students who automatically became objects of interest to the CuIS. . . . [who] using covers from the Foreign Ministry, or any other governmental organization like ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) . . . . come into contact with students and even lodge where the foreign students lodge and participate with them in all their activities.” The essence of this visit, apart from
providing hard currency to the fading Castro regime and giving it a bit of blue-washing, is that the University of Michigan is naively signing on to have its alumni spied upon and tested for any willingness to betray the United States.

If any of the UMich alumni are inclined to give Cuba the benefit of the doubt, they might contrast the harbor of Miami with that of Havana. The former, as Google shows, has hundreds of small private boats going to and fro, whereas the latter is almost entirely devoid of them. The reason is that anyone in Cuba who has a boat is a risk to flee to the United States, whereas no one in Miami is going to use a boat to flee to Cuba.

Perhaps one of the Michigan alumni who partakes of this miserable venture will retain enough self-possession to ask why it seems no one in Havana likes to sail, or why, in spite of recent and limited changes, Freedom House places Cuba among the world’s most repressive regimes and finds that 92 percent of Cubans get their news from government sources.

What is it about dictatorial regimes that give universities such a thrill up the leg? UMich would not survive for 24 hours in Cuba, but it is far from the only university that is willing to cozy up to totalitarians. The LSE’s ties to Qaddafi’s regime were notorious even before cracks appeared in his feet of clay, and the number of U.S. universities that can’t get enough China –especially including Yale –is vast. And it’s not just universities per se: academics of all stripes are evidently easy marks. Last summer, presumably because I’m a member of the American Historical Association, I was solicited by a mailing from People to People for a visit to Russia  that featured “unprecedented access” to such easy-to-access attractions as the Bolshoi Ballet and a Faberge egg (though not the graves of the journalists Putin has murdered). Evidently academics are easily impressed as well as gullible.

The easy answer is that universities are on the left, so they naturally overlook the sins of left-wing dictators. True, it’s hard to imagine UMich promoting a similar trip to Franco’s Spain, and true, the People to People visit was led by Elaine Tyler May, a past president of the Organization of American Historians and a well-known critic of both the Cold War and anti-communism. But Qaddafi was not on the left or the right as conventionally defined, and Putin, with his reactionary nostalgia, his corporate statism, and his pro-natalist policies (it would be interesting to know what Prof. May, as a feminist historian, makes of those), has more in common with fascism than Communism, so the ideological explanation doesn’t fully cut it. Academics are only leftists in passing. Fundamentally, they’re oppositional, a sentiment that in the U.S. expresses itself as leftism–and makes them natural allies of any regime that opposes the United States.

On the university level, blindness and bias probably take second place to a simpler desire: they want the money. That’s understandable, if far from glorious. And I’m not entirely opposed to visiting totalitarian societies: I visited the USSR in 1989, just before the Wall came down, and it opened my eyes to the fact that Ronald Reagan talked more sense about Communism than all his opponents combined. But ventures like Michigan’s offer the promise of access and the reality of a fully-programmed and controlled experience, and place educational institutions funded by the taxpayers in the position of tacitly endorsing and enabling oppressive regimes. That’s a dirty business, and the sooner Michigan – or its alumni, or the Michigan legislature – puts a stop to it, the better.

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Cuba Suspends Postal Service to the U.S.

Last weekend, the Obama administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba. And now the Cuban government has decided to thank them by suspending postal service to the U.S. indefinitely:

The suspension follows the introduction of stricter security measures by the US last year after the attempted mailing of explosives from Yemen.

The Cuban postal service says large amounts of mail were refused entry and returned in the following months.

Correspondents say the cost of so many returns may have led to the decision to stop the service.

It was President Obama who resumed postal service between the U.S. and Cuba (via third-party countries) back in 2009. Before that, it had been blocked for 42 years.

Establishing better relations with Cuba was one of Obama’s campaign promises, and so far it’s turned out to be a total failure. Despite the administration’s attempts to ease the embargo on Cuba, Havana has responded with indifference — and now this. Obama’s election was supposed to herald a new age of diplomacy between the U.S. and South America. Instead, his overtures toward both Cuba and Venezuela have blown up in his face.

Last weekend, the Obama administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba. And now the Cuban government has decided to thank them by suspending postal service to the U.S. indefinitely:

The suspension follows the introduction of stricter security measures by the US last year after the attempted mailing of explosives from Yemen.

The Cuban postal service says large amounts of mail were refused entry and returned in the following months.

Correspondents say the cost of so many returns may have led to the decision to stop the service.

It was President Obama who resumed postal service between the U.S. and Cuba (via third-party countries) back in 2009. Before that, it had been blocked for 42 years.

Establishing better relations with Cuba was one of Obama’s campaign promises, and so far it’s turned out to be a total failure. Despite the administration’s attempts to ease the embargo on Cuba, Havana has responded with indifference — and now this. Obama’s election was supposed to herald a new age of diplomacy between the U.S. and South America. Instead, his overtures toward both Cuba and Venezuela have blown up in his face.

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China and Those Tensions that Remain

Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has been accompanied by the usual swooning. The New York Times, for instance, finds “Subtle Signs of Progress in U.S.-China Relations.” Very subtle indeed:

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in American efforts to press Kim Jong-il to roll back his nuclear weapons program.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Hu said at a White House news conference that China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

But even Times reporter Michael Wines is forced to admit that “words, of course, are easier than deeds.” He went on to concede (a concession that undercuts the entire thrust of the article):

Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Mr. Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the American side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, leveling the playing field for American investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the nations’ militaries.

That tensions remain even after the two presidents broke bread together should hardly be a surprise. Keep in mind the larger picture. Numerous countries have ascended to great power status in the past 1,000 years, as China now aspires to do. Not a single one managed to make the transition peacefully. Not the Ottomans, not the Habsburgs, not the French, not the British, not the Germans, not the Russians. Not even the Americans. We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving nation, but that’s not how our neighbors see us — and with good cause. Remember, as soon as we were strong enough, we went to war with Mexico to wrestle away the Southwest, and then, for good measure, we went to war with Spain to wrestle away Cuba and the Philippines. These were the actions, recall, of a liberal democracy. Autocratic regimes like the one in Beijing tend to be much more belligerent.

And indeed, China has been acting aggressively recently in trying to establish its hegemony in the region. As part of this process, it has undertaken a rapid military buildup that, as Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza note in the Weekly Standard, includes acquiring the means to strike distant American bases.

Does this mean that war with China is inevitable? Of course not. But we should be wary of the happy talk that normally accompanies summits. China may indeed see a “peaceful rise,” the slogan it adopted a few years ago. But based on history, that’s not the way to bet.

Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has been accompanied by the usual swooning. The New York Times, for instance, finds “Subtle Signs of Progress in U.S.-China Relations.” Very subtle indeed:

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in American efforts to press Kim Jong-il to roll back his nuclear weapons program.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Hu said at a White House news conference that China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

But even Times reporter Michael Wines is forced to admit that “words, of course, are easier than deeds.” He went on to concede (a concession that undercuts the entire thrust of the article):

Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Mr. Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the American side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, leveling the playing field for American investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the nations’ militaries.

That tensions remain even after the two presidents broke bread together should hardly be a surprise. Keep in mind the larger picture. Numerous countries have ascended to great power status in the past 1,000 years, as China now aspires to do. Not a single one managed to make the transition peacefully. Not the Ottomans, not the Habsburgs, not the French, not the British, not the Germans, not the Russians. Not even the Americans. We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving nation, but that’s not how our neighbors see us — and with good cause. Remember, as soon as we were strong enough, we went to war with Mexico to wrestle away the Southwest, and then, for good measure, we went to war with Spain to wrestle away Cuba and the Philippines. These were the actions, recall, of a liberal democracy. Autocratic regimes like the one in Beijing tend to be much more belligerent.

And indeed, China has been acting aggressively recently in trying to establish its hegemony in the region. As part of this process, it has undertaken a rapid military buildup that, as Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza note in the Weekly Standard, includes acquiring the means to strike distant American bases.

Does this mean that war with China is inevitable? Of course not. But we should be wary of the happy talk that normally accompanies summits. China may indeed see a “peaceful rise,” the slogan it adopted a few years ago. But based on history, that’s not the way to bet.

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Morning Commentary

China, Russia, and the EU have reportedly snubbed Iran’s invitation to visit its nuclear facilities. The trip was intended to undermine the upcoming P5+1 talks with Tehran. However, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are still planning to take the Iranian government up on the offer.

The nominations for RNC chair start today, and Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus still appears to be the front-runner, with approximately 44 committee members expected to support him. In comparison, incumbent RNC chair Michael Steele can currently count on support from around 24 members, according to Politico: “On a tactical level, the race has come down to two questions: How quickly can Steele’s challengers leave him in the dust? And can anyone get a decisive edge if the chairman falters early?”

For the fifth consecutive year, Freedom House has reported a worldwide decline in freedom. The number of “free” countries dropped from 89 to 87 last year, and the overall number of electoral democracies has dropped from 123 to 115 since 2005. From the Washington Post editorial board: “When the United States does not advocate strongly for freedom, other democracies tend to retreat and autocracies feel emboldened. If the disturbing trend documented by Freedom House is to be reversed, Mr. Obama will need to make freedom a higher foreign policy priority.”

The riots in Tunisia and Algeria could make the youth populations of both countries susceptible to the forces of Islamic extremism: “This tide of furious young people, willing to die if need be, is undoubtedly a social modernization movement; due to the regimes’ self-interest, however, the Islamist dogma could overwhelm their thirst for justice and seize the upper hand over the riots.”

The House GOP is preparing for the debate on new health-care legislation next week, while congressional Democrats have decided to dub the Republican’s bill the “Patient’s Rights Repeal Act.”

China, Russia, and the EU have reportedly snubbed Iran’s invitation to visit its nuclear facilities. The trip was intended to undermine the upcoming P5+1 talks with Tehran. However, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are still planning to take the Iranian government up on the offer.

The nominations for RNC chair start today, and Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus still appears to be the front-runner, with approximately 44 committee members expected to support him. In comparison, incumbent RNC chair Michael Steele can currently count on support from around 24 members, according to Politico: “On a tactical level, the race has come down to two questions: How quickly can Steele’s challengers leave him in the dust? And can anyone get a decisive edge if the chairman falters early?”

For the fifth consecutive year, Freedom House has reported a worldwide decline in freedom. The number of “free” countries dropped from 89 to 87 last year, and the overall number of electoral democracies has dropped from 123 to 115 since 2005. From the Washington Post editorial board: “When the United States does not advocate strongly for freedom, other democracies tend to retreat and autocracies feel emboldened. If the disturbing trend documented by Freedom House is to be reversed, Mr. Obama will need to make freedom a higher foreign policy priority.”

The riots in Tunisia and Algeria could make the youth populations of both countries susceptible to the forces of Islamic extremism: “This tide of furious young people, willing to die if need be, is undoubtedly a social modernization movement; due to the regimes’ self-interest, however, the Islamist dogma could overwhelm their thirst for justice and seize the upper hand over the riots.”

The House GOP is preparing for the debate on new health-care legislation next week, while congressional Democrats have decided to dub the Republican’s bill the “Patient’s Rights Repeal Act.”

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Not So Fast with the “1962” Allusions

The news that Iran is shipping Shahab and Scud missiles to Venezuela has the blogosphere going full throttle, and for good reason. The introduction of medium-range ballistic missiles in Latin America will mark a threshold of dangerous destabilization for the region. Iran’s current crop of operational missiles can’t hit U.S. territory from Venezuela, but they can hit Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico, among others. With Iran successfully testing longer-range missiles, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian missiles launched from Venezuela could hit the U.S.

Of equal concern, moreover, is the mere presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Latin America. Hezbollah is already there in growing numbers, operating freely in Brazil and Venezuela and often detected along narcotics-trafficking routes all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Earlier hints that Iran’s paramilitary Qods force has already deployed to Venezuela are now the harbinger of a greater and more complex threat.

American commentators are quick to point out the obvious similarities of the “Venezuelan Missile Crisis” to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Their complaint is understandable: the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be acting vigorously — or even paying attention — as John F. Kennedy did. But the truth is that we shouldn’t long for a Kennedy-style resolution to the missile incursion of 2010. The record of Kennedy’s actions during the crisis shows that he bargained the Soviet missiles out of Cuba by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy admirers have been at pains to minimize this aspect of the deal and depict it as a collateral, low-cost gesture. It was certainly presented in that light in the 2000 movie Thirteen Days. As summarized at the above link, however, the actual significance of the quid pro quo was sufficient to cause editors and historians to excise references to it in the early accounts of the missile crisis. Making such a deal didn’t reflect well on Kennedy’s public profile. It could not do so: the missiles removed from Turkey were a key element of the NATO defense posture in 1962, and Kennedy’s agreement to remove them was made without NATO consultation. The question about the missiles was not whether they were “obsolete” — they were liquid-fueled, and the U.S. was transitioning to a solid-fueled missile force — but whether the alliance was depending on them at the time. And the answer to that question was yes.

The Iran-Venezuela situation of today is more complex; as it unfolds, its features will increasingly diverge from the profile of the 1962 crisis. Today’s impending crisis involves much more of Latin America. We should address it on its own terms. I don’t wish for a Kennedy-esque approach from President Obama. I’m apprehensive about what he would be prepared to trade away in missile negotiations with Iran.

The news that Iran is shipping Shahab and Scud missiles to Venezuela has the blogosphere going full throttle, and for good reason. The introduction of medium-range ballistic missiles in Latin America will mark a threshold of dangerous destabilization for the region. Iran’s current crop of operational missiles can’t hit U.S. territory from Venezuela, but they can hit Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico, among others. With Iran successfully testing longer-range missiles, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian missiles launched from Venezuela could hit the U.S.

Of equal concern, moreover, is the mere presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Latin America. Hezbollah is already there in growing numbers, operating freely in Brazil and Venezuela and often detected along narcotics-trafficking routes all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Earlier hints that Iran’s paramilitary Qods force has already deployed to Venezuela are now the harbinger of a greater and more complex threat.

American commentators are quick to point out the obvious similarities of the “Venezuelan Missile Crisis” to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Their complaint is understandable: the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be acting vigorously — or even paying attention — as John F. Kennedy did. But the truth is that we shouldn’t long for a Kennedy-style resolution to the missile incursion of 2010. The record of Kennedy’s actions during the crisis shows that he bargained the Soviet missiles out of Cuba by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy admirers have been at pains to minimize this aspect of the deal and depict it as a collateral, low-cost gesture. It was certainly presented in that light in the 2000 movie Thirteen Days. As summarized at the above link, however, the actual significance of the quid pro quo was sufficient to cause editors and historians to excise references to it in the early accounts of the missile crisis. Making such a deal didn’t reflect well on Kennedy’s public profile. It could not do so: the missiles removed from Turkey were a key element of the NATO defense posture in 1962, and Kennedy’s agreement to remove them was made without NATO consultation. The question about the missiles was not whether they were “obsolete” — they were liquid-fueled, and the U.S. was transitioning to a solid-fueled missile force — but whether the alliance was depending on them at the time. And the answer to that question was yes.

The Iran-Venezuela situation of today is more complex; as it unfolds, its features will increasingly diverge from the profile of the 1962 crisis. Today’s impending crisis involves much more of Latin America. We should address it on its own terms. I don’t wish for a Kennedy-esque approach from President Obama. I’m apprehensive about what he would be prepared to trade away in missile negotiations with Iran.

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