Is this an­other Cold War with Cuba?

Trump wants to har­den re­la­tions with the is­land that had soft­ened un­der Obama. It’s the wrong move.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The United States iso­lated Cuba diplo­mat­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally for half a cen­tury in an ef­fort to force Fidel Cas­tro out of power, or at least to change his re­pres­sive ways. But the freeze-out — a mis­guided Cold War pol­icy the U.S. clung to for far too many years — didn’t work. In fact, the White House sanc­tions, along with a con­gres­sion­ally man­dated em­bargo, made life more mis­er­able for the Cuban peo­ple rather than bet­ter, while fail­ing to dis­lodge Cas­tro, who out­lasted nine U.S. pres­i­dents be­fore re­tir­ing.

Fi­nally, in 2014, Pres­i­dent Obama ac­knowl­edged re­al­ity and be­gan nor­mal­iz­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions. He opted for en­gage­ment, rather than es­trange­ment, to per­suade Fidel’s suc­ces­sor (and brother), Raul Cas­tro, to ease re­stric­tions on speech, po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and other hu­man rights. But just as that loos­en­ing is get­ting un­der­way, Pres­i­dent Trump, who seems to view ev­ery Obama pol­icy as a per­sonal af­front, wants to re­turn some chill to the re­la­tion­ship. On Fri­day, he an­nounced that he would once again bar Amer­i­can tourists from trav­el­ing on their own to Cuba and ban busi­ness trans­ac­tions with firms con­nected with Cuba’s mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity ser­vices, which cov­ers a large part of the is­land na­tion’s econ­omy.

That’s bad pol­icy for Amer­i­cans as well as Cubans, and it’s based on a disin­gen­u­ous ar­gu­ment. The pu­ta­tive rea­son for the change is that Cuba still vi­o­lates the hu­man rights of its own peo­ple, in­clud­ing jail­ing dis­si­dents and in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ists. But hasn’t the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion been mov­ing the U.S. away from its fo­cus on hu­man rights? Press­ing for­eign gov­ern­ments to end op­pres­sion has been a main­stay of U.S. for­eign pol­icy for decades un­der Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions — but Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son told State De­part­ment em­ploy­ees last month that the U.S. would no longer put such a pre­mium on hu­man rights is­sues be­cause such con­sid­er­a­tions could in­ter­fere with our na­tional in­ter­ests. Trump has vowed to put “Amer­ica first” and has been loathe to crit­i­cize for­eign lead­ers pub­licly for their vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights.

Con­sis­tent with that amoral ap­proach, hu­man rights wasn’t on the agenda when Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, whose regime has en­gaged in a years-long crack­down on dis­si­dents, vis­ited Pres­i­dent Trump at Mara-Lago two months ago. The sub­ject went un­ad­dressed when Egypt’s pres­i­dent, Ab­del Fat­tah Sisi, vis­ited the White House in April. Sisi’s gov­ern­ment, which re­ceives $1.3 bil­lion a year in mil­i­tary aid from the U.S., is ac­cused of killing, jail­ing or tor­tur­ing thou­sands of dis­si­dents. Trump has also praised Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte for do­ing an “un­be­liev­able job on the drug prob­lem” in the Philip­pines, where ex­tra­ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tions by po­lice and vig­i­lantes have killed more than 7,000 sus­pected ad­dicts and deal­ers.

Now Trump is shocked, shocked at Cuba’s hu­man rights poli­cies? That ex­cuse doesn’t have the ring of truth.

What’s re­ally hap­pen­ing is that Trump has let the anti-Cas­tro sect in Congress take the wheel on this is­sue, no doubt for cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Re­mem­ber that Trump broke with his Repub­li­can ri­vals dur­ing the cam­paign and sup­ported Obama’s rap­proche­ment with Cuba. Then he flipped and dis­par­aged the pol­icy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it un­less Cuba met fresh de­mands on hu­man rights, in­clud­ing the “free­ing of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.”

Cuba cer­tainly needs to do much more to re­spect hu­man rights. Un­der the Cas­tros, dis­si­dents have been jailed and po­lit­i­cal free­dom has been re­stricted. But the U.S. main­tains nor­mal re­la­tions with many coun­tries that have weak records on hu­man rights; cut­ting ties and slap­ping on re­stric­tions that hurt or­di­nary Cubans is not the best way to change things, as the U.S. learned long ago.

Gen­er­ally, we gain by con­nect­ing with other na­tions, not by push­ing them away. We live in a glob­al­ized econ­omy in a world where dis­cus­sion and diplo­macy usu­ally pro­vide the best av­enues for re­solv­ing dif­fer­ences. Trump should ex­pand ties to Cuba, and lean on Congress to lift its puni­tive em­bargo as well, while also press­ing the coun­try on its hu­man rights record.

Trump wants to help the Cuban peo­ple “be­gin their jour­ney to­ward pros­per­ity and lib­erty.” But he can’t do that by re­vert­ing to the in­ef­fec­tive poli­cies that caused so much pain for so long. A bet­ter out­come would be reached through nor­mal­ized re­la­tions, diplo­macy and the ex­er­cise of soft power.

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