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Edwin James: Obama's bad move on Cuba

Published:Saturday | March 19, 2016 | 12:00 AMEwin James
AP A poster features portraits of Cuba's President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama and reads in Spanish, "Welcome to Cuba," outside a restaurant in Havana Thursday. Obama is scheduled to travel to the island on March 20, the first US presidential trip to Havana in nearly 90 years.

No doubt President Barack Obama wants history to remember him as the first American president to visit Cuba since the revolution. Nothing is wrong with that, but he should consider what his visit in March will mean for principle and for the Cuban people.

Since his decision in December 2014 to normalise relations with the Castro regime, little, if anything, has changed for the Cuban people. It is unworthy of a visit.

Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2015 for Cuba, says things have remained virtually the same for the Cuban people since the decision to normalise relations. The regime has continued to imprison its people, restrict freedom of expression and travel, among other things.

The report says: "The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. While in recent years it has relied less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and other critics have increased dramatically. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment."

Concerning freedom of expression, it says, "The government controls all media outlets in Cuba and tightly restricts access to outside information, severely limiting the right to freedom of expression. Only a very small fraction of Cubans are able to read independent websites and blogs because of the high cost of, and limited access to, the Internet. While people in cities like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, or Santa Clara have access to the Internet, people in more rural areas are not able to go online."

The regime continues to limit movement inside Cuba under a 1997 law known as Decree 27, designed to control migration from the countryside to the capital Havana. Prisons are overcrowded and the conditions in them horrible; prisoners have no mechanism to complain about these conditions, even as the government continues to imprison those who criticise the regime.

Amnesty International, in a press release on December 10, 2015, one year after the decision to normalise, said, "Yesterday, police in the capital Havana arbitrarily restricted the movement of members of the prominent Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group of activists as they prepared for today's demonstrations. This came after at least 1,477 politically motivated detentions in November 2015, the highest monthly total in many years, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation."


Cuban sham

All this proves that the regime has no intention of dismantling itself and relaxing repression; the overtures and commitments it has made of doing so are a sham. Opening travel to tourists and allowing vendors to receive money in US currency is designed to get the foreign exchange it needs to keep itself alive; for precious little of the money coming into the country finds its way to the people.

The very mention of normalisation of relations implies effort from all those concerned. Where effort is absent, there can be no normalisation of relations. This what President Obama seems intent on doing, and what his predecessors rightly refused to do.

He is proceeding on the fallacy that what has made the Cuban regime repressive and the people suffer has been the US trade embargo. But he is being hypocritical or ignorant, for it was Castro who decided to become communist, cutting off his people from the world. The embargo was put in place and maintained to help the Cuban people by forcing the regime to change, not to punish them as opponents of the embargo continue to insist.

That the regime has refused to budge shows that the Castro brothers have no desire to help and free Cuba's citizens. Those who have blamed the embargo and the United States for the woes of the Cuban people, while the regime has remained recalcitrant, are like people who blame an innocent child for enabling a bully to abuse children by defending himself against the bully.

In his determination to normalise relations with the Castro regime, Obama is uncertain about principle and his own country's rightness in punishing oppression. Now he wants to reward it.

This is vintage Obama, a man who believes that a large part of the world's problem is because of his country's power, size and influence, and it is his duty to reduce them, even if doing so violates principle and furthers oppression, leaving the world a more dangerous place.

Is President Obama more concerned with his legacy than he is with doing right?

- Ewin James is a freelance journalist. He lives in Florida. Email feedback to and