Barack Obama’s Cuban mistake

Editor’s note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on website.

Let me open a personal wound.

When I was four years old, my mother took me, my brother and sister out of Panama. My parents wanted to escape poverty and open the doors to education and opportunity for their children.

Those doors shut in Panama thanks to a Castro-like populist dictator named Arnulfo Arias. He jailed, tortured and oppressed anyone who did not obey his regime.

He discriminated against dark-skinned people, blacks, Asians and native people – many of whom, like my grandfather, died building the Panama Canal. The repression extended to confiscating property and even trying to take away Panamanian citizenship from people like my father, who had come from Jamaica. 

America’s left-wing academics and Hollywood celebrities have long romanticized Latin American strongmen as righteous revolutionaries, opposed to mid-20th century American military and business dominance of the region.

But to people living in those nations, the reality is that the revolutionaries became cruel, oppressive dictators in the case of Arias, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and most of all, Fidel Castro.

Given my scars, President Obama’s trip to Cuba later this month leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

To me, it is painful to see the president of a nation based on individual liberty and protection of rights under law have to keep silent about the thousands of people who have suffered oppression at the hands of the Castro regime.

It is not that I don’t understand what the president is trying to do by restoring full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half century of isolation.

I get it that sanctions, embargoes, even attempted invasion have not improved human rights in Cuba. Obama’s premise is that an infusion of Americans, with ideas and money, will lead the Cuban people to demand a more open and free society He can point to the history of President Nixon’s successful outreach to China as a model for creating a new political dynamic with old enemies.

The idea is like a long-term investment. But the reality of the moment is that the president has normalized relations without obtaining a schedule for resumption of democratic freedoms, human rights and property rights for the Cuban people.

The release of 53 political prisoners by Cuba last January looks like window dressing to international human rights watchdogs who describe the reality of progress on Cuban human rights as a myth.

The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent editorial that since Obama’s change in policy, “the number of individuals jailed arbitrarily has gone up. This past January, according to the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory on Human Rights, some 1,474 individuals were jailed at the regime’s whim, more than 500 of them women.”

“The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism,” according to the website of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. 

“It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.”

Yet another respected observer of human and political rights, Amnesty International, comes to a similar conclusion on its website:

“Despite increasingly open diplomatic relations, severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and movement continued. Thousands of cases of harassment of government critics and arbitrary arrests and detentions were reported.”

Even with those disturbing assessments of the Cuban human rights record, the American people support Obama’s diplomatic approach. A Pew Poll from last summer found that 73 percent of Americans favor the Obama policy of normalizing relations with Cuba. And 72 percent favor lifting the five-decades-old trade embargo.

The Pew poll also found that a whopping 83 percent of Democrats favor normalization and 82 percent back lifting the embargo. Even a majority of Republicans – 56 percent – stand with Obama on reopening relations and 59 percent want the embargo lifted. 

In Miami, just 90 miles from Cuba and home to so many who fled the Castro regime, young people of Cuban heritage are increasingly vocal in their support for new U.S. policies allowing closer ties between Cuba and the U.S.

The same is true among the Cuban people. In April 2015, a poll by Univision and The Washington Post found Cubans unhappy with their political structure and overwhelmingly in support of stronger ties with the U.S.

But for all the promises, political rights remain absent.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a man of Cuban heritage, argues that the Castro regime has won “access to millions if not billions of dollars in resources they didn’t have access to before this opening” without significant retreat from hardline communist policies.

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, also agrees it is time for a new American policy in dealing with Cuba but in tune with Rubio he concludes, “We should have made a better deal.” 

The president will take in an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Cuban national team during his visit to Cuba.    

It will be fun. But to my mind, knowing what my father went through in Panama, it is hard to match fun and games with the reality of ongoing repression in Cuba.


Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC’s “The Five,” where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.

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