Obama’s Cuba policy only emboldened Castro | South Florida Sun Sentinel

South Florida Sun Sentinel, December 23, 2020

Obama’s Cuba policy only emboldened Castro | Opinion

By John Suarez

Special to the Sun Sentinel | Dec 23, 2020 at 1:46 PM

President Obama and President of Cuba Raúl Castro at their joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, Cuba, March 21, 2016. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

Reading the Dec. 15 op-ed by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh [“For Biden’s Cuba policy, quid pro quo incrementalism is doomed to fail, Dec. 15”], I was shocked by the numerous omissions the authors made in defending a failed policy.

President Obama’s détente began in 2009 with sanctions loosened and calls for a willingness to negotiate with Havana. This coincided with increasing violence against dissidents, including high-profile opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, who died in a suspicious car crash in Bayamo, Cuba, on July 22, 2012. Payá’s children and the driver of his car that night all say the car was run off the road. The Cuban government, of course, says otherwise.

On the international front, the Castro regime was caught smuggling Soviet era fighter jets and weaponry to North Korea in July 2013, in violation of international UN sanctions. In June 2014, a U.S. Hellfire missile used in NATO exercises in Europe ended up in Havana’s possession instead of being sent back to the United States. Although U.S. officials said this was the result of a shipping mishap by Lockheed Martin, the missile’s manufacturer, this was at a time during which the U.S. was already secretly negotiating with Castro. Relations were officially reestablished in July 2015, and yet, the United States was unable to obtain the return of this weapon, despite repeated requests, until the story went public in January 2016. The Hellfire missile, filled with sensitive technology, was returned in February 2016, after over a year and a half in Havana’s possession.

On Dec. 17, 2014, when President Obama opened what he called “a new chapter” in U.S.-Cuba relations, he commuted the sentence of Cuban spies who planned terrorist acts on U.S. soil and freed Gerardo Hernandez, who was serving a double life sentence for espionage and murder conspiracy, as part of a prisoner exchange. The murder conspiracy charges were for his role in the killing of three American citizens and a Cuban national with residency in the United States on Feb. 24, 1996. The four were shot down by Cuban fighter jets as they flew small aircraft with Brothers to the Rescue, a group that searched the seas for Cuban refugees in trouble. Hernandez’s spy group had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue. Hernandez returned to Cuba and became tasked with spying on Cubans on a national level. Last week, on Dec. 17, he was promoted to the Castro dictatorship’s Council of State, the 31-member body that governs day-to-day life on the island.

LeoGrande and Kornbluh give a false impression when they state that “Obama restored full diplomatic relations and fully staffed the embassy and consulate in Havana.” The president did restore full diplomatic relations, renaming the Interests Section an Embassy, but the Interests Section had been fully staffed for years. What the authors left out was that, beginning in November 2016, on President Obama’s watch, scores of U.S. diplomats began suffering neurological injuries, and the Cuban government failed in its duty to protect them on their territory. This was the reason for the reduction in personnel.

Moreover, they write about “diplomatic civility” but omit that on Jan. 2, 2017, Raúl Castro presided over a military parade in which Cuban soldiers chanted: “Obama! Obama! With what fervor we’d like to confront your clumsiness, give you a cleansing with rebels and mortar, and make you a hat out of bullets to the head.”

This was a one-sided and failed détente that did not serve U.S. interests or improve the lot of Cubans on the island, but it did empower the dictatorship that oppresses them.

John Suarez is the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, an independent nonprofit institution dedicated to promoting human rights and a nonviolent transition to democracy and the rule of law in Cuba.