Kennedy's relationship with Cuba included one outright failure, at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and another significant concession to the Soviet Union presented to the public as a success, in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Since then, Cuba has peddled so-called Communist revolution throughout the hemisphere, supported terrorism, harbored American fugitives, welcomed hijacked airplanes, and kept his people poor and unfree.
One potential upside of Obama's action is that those who implausibly blame the U.S. policy for oppression and poverty in Cuba may now have to quit making excuses for the despotic duo of ruling brothers Fidel and Raul Castro. There will be those, however, who will insist on blaming America even if the Castros continue in their abusive ways.
While praising Obama's decision as "a crucial step toward removing a major obstacle to progress on human rights on the island," the organization Human Rights Watch reminds Americans that Cuba is by no means a socialist workers' paradise. The group reports that "the Cuban government continues to engage in systematic abuses aimed at punishing critics and discouraging dissent" and "to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights."
Those things are not, and never have been, a function of the American economic embargo or travel restrictions. They flow directly from the Marxist political philosophy that has controlled Cuba since 1959.
According to Human Rights watch, "Arbitrary arrests and short-term detention have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely. … Detainees are often beaten, threatened, and held incommunicado for hours or days."
Cuba released a few political prisoners in connection with Obama's announcement. But the organization Amnesty International nonetheless remains skeptical of real reform and cautions that much more needs to be done.
"We have been receiving incredibly worrying reports about a rise in harassment and short-term detentions of dissidents throughout 2014 which has continued in recent weeks," Amnesty International says. "Prisoner releases will be no more than a smokescreen if they are not accompanied by expanded space for the free and peaceful expression of all opinions and other freedoms in Cuba."
Human Rights watch concurs. "The government controls all media outlets in Cuba and tightly restricts access to outside information, severely limiting the right to freedom of expression." Yet some American liberals seemingly cannot resist romanticizing Cuba despite its lousy human rights environment.
Decades ago, some intellectuals and influential people in the American Left naively ignored Stalin's murderous regime while proclaiming the advent of the much-coveted classless society in the Soviet Union. Wishing away or whitewashing brutality there did not make it go away, however.
Americans enamored with the Cuban healthcare system or focused exclusively or excessively on the material well-being of its people should keep in mind that a tyranny is still in power there. No one should assume that the Castros will do anything other than keep it that way despite U.S. concessions.
None of this is to say that past U.S. policy premised on isolating Cuba has been a success. It has not. So Obama's initiative is probably worth a try, although its timing is questionable and America must insist that Cuba expand freedom and respect human rights in exchange for better relations.
An official in the Obama State Department recently told Congress that she had "raised with the Cuban government our concerns about its harassment, use of violence, and arbitrary detention of Cuban citizens peacefully expressing their views." She did not report any affirmative response from the Cuban government.
Critics like U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and Castro opponent, complain that, "The U.S. is rushing to embrace two decrepit tyrants in their twilight." She makes a decent point, but there is really no way of knowing for sure whether the prospects for improvement in Cuba will be better or worse post-Castros.
Two talented sons of Cuban refugees – Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – are running for president as Republicans. They will see to it that Cuba and the actual conditions on the island stay on the American radar screen.
Everyone agrees that the Cuban people are great in their own special way. This applies to those who fled for freedom long ago, those who still risk their lives to escape today, and those still there suffering or enduring as if stuck in time.
Here's hoping Obama's gambit works, that the lives of the Cuban people improve, and that America's national interest is served.