Friday, September 30, 2011

President Obama Loses Way on Cuba

September 12 meeting with Hispanic journalists

QUESTION: Richardson is right now trying to get access and the liberation of Alan Gross. His detention came in the middle of your efforts to try to change a little the US policy towards Cuba. What’s the situation with Gross right now, how far might this case torpedo somehow your visions for that change of policy and are you disappointed with Cuba’s response to your steps?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Richardson is acting as a private citizen on a humanitarian mission to try to free Gross. We’ve said repeatedly that Mr. Gross should be free, that the conviction was not based on evidence or rule of law [1], also that there is an humanitarian issue here involved given Gross precarious health. So anything to get Mr. Gross free we will support [2], although Mr. Richardson does not represent the US government in his actions there.

More broadly, the policy we have had to facilitate additional remittances and travel for family to Cuba, we continue to think is the right one [3].

It empowers Cubans inside of Cuba who are able to have other sources of income, meet their families, get new ideas and exposure to what’s going on outside of Cuba. We think it creates more space inside Cuba for freedom and civil liberties.

The Cuban government has said that it wants to transition, to loosen up the economy, so that businesses can operate more freely. We have not seen evidence that they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically, and they certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to freeing political prisoners [4] and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds [5].

And when you think of what’s happening around the world, everywhere people are crying out for freedom, you are seeing enormous changes taking place in the Middle East just in the span of 6 months, you are seeing there are almost no authoritarian communist countries left in the world and here you have this small island that is a throwback to the 60s. [6] Obviously is not working for them, the standard of living has not improved significantly, in fact they are deteriorating. [7] In many cases, peoples’ liberties continue to be constrained at a time when the world is more open and people have more information than ever before.

So it’s clearly time for the Cuban regime to change. Whether they are going to seize that opportunity, so far we have not seen the kind of evidence that we’d like to see, but that change is going to take place. [8]

(unofficial transcript by a participating journalist)


September 28, 2011 Remarks by the President in an "Open for Questions" Roundtable

MS. MEDINA: This next question is about Cuba, and it comes from Florida: What is your position regarding Cuba and the embargo? What should the Cuban people expect from you and your government during the remainder of your term, and in the future if you’re reelected?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, what we did with respect to Cuba was recognize that the Cuban people now have not enjoyed freedom for 50 years, and everywhere else in the world you’ve been seeing a democratization movement that has been pressing forward. Throughout Latin America, democracies have emerged from previously authoritarian regimes. The time has come for the same thing to happen in Cuba. [9]

Now, what we’ve tried to do is to send a signal that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba if the Cuban government starts taking the proper steps to open up its own country and its own -- and provide the space and the respect for human rights that would allow the Cuban people to determine their own destiny. [10]

I changed the remittance laws so that family members could more easily send money back to Cuba, because that would give them more power and it would create a economic space for them to prosper. Within Cuba we have changed the family travel laws so that they can travel more frequently, as well as laws that relate to educational travel. [11]

And so we’ve made these modifications that send a signal that we’re prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a Cold War mentality dating back to when I was born. [12] On the other hand, we have to see a signal back from the Cuban government that it is following through on releasing political prisoners, [13] on providing people their basic human rights, in order for us to be fully engaged with them. And so far, at least, what we haven’t seen is the kind of genuine spirit of transformation inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the embargo. [14]

I don’t know what will happen over the next year, but we are prepared to see what happens in Cuba. If we see positive movement we will respond in a positive way. Hopefully, over the next five years, we will see Cuba looking around the world and saying, we need to catch up with history. [15] And as long as I’m President I will always be prepared to change our Cuba policy if and when we start seeing a serious intention on the part of the Cuban government to provide liberty for its people. [16] But that’s always my watchword, is are we seeing freedom for the Cuban people to live lives of opportunity and prosperity. If we are, then we’ll be supportive of them.

MR. LERNER: Those conditions will suffice -- human rights, free political prisoners? No demand for a change in the economic structure, for example?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s very hard to separate liberty from some economic reforms. If people have no way to eat other than through the government, then the government ends up having very strict control over them, and they can be punished in all sorts of ways for expressing their own opinions. That’s not to say that a condition for us releasing the embargo would be that they have a perfect market system, because obviously we have trade and exchanges with a number of countries that fall short of a liberal democracy. [17]

But there is a basic, I think, recognition of people’s human rights that includes their right to work, to change jobs, to get an education, to start a business. So some elements of freedom are included in how an economic system works. And right now, we haven’t seen any of that. [18]

But let me just say this. Obviously if we saw a release of political prisoners, the ability for people to express their opinions and to petition their government, if we saw even those steps those would be very significant, and we would pay attention and we would undoubtedly reexamine our overall approach to Cuba if we saw a serious movement in that direction. [19]


My comment, posted to ABC blog

What if Cuba demanded that the US have free health care and higher education like it does, or ended use of the death penalty and runaway gun use, before it was “open to a new relationship”?

President Obama has either fallen into a 100 year old trap of assuming that the US has the right to shape Cuba’s domestic polity or is just looking for excuses.

He is badly informed about what is happening inside Cuba today.

Thanks to the assistance of Spain and the Catholic church, all persons deemed prisoners of conscience have been released. Those still imprisoned are guilty of violent crimes, including hijacking. China and Saudi Arabia and other countries have more serious problems of repression than Cuba does but that does not inhibit our bilateral relations with them.

Cuba is in the early stages of transforming its economy and social system, similar to the first steps in China and Vietnam, but the direction is clear as every serious international reporter has documented. Obama could be taking positive steps to foster change instead of buying into the politics of the minority of hard liners in the Cuban American community who cannot recognize or tolerate self-directed evolution.

The President has acted forcefully on Cuban American travel and remittances but timidly on restoring the rights of the rest of us.

Cuba is one more issue where the excitement of campaign promises to meet with US opponents for real dialog has been replaced by tired rhetoric of conditionality.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development