No one expected an overnight change in the way Cuba treats fearless citizens who challenge the power of the almighty state. Inexcusably, though, there has not been one inch of give. Public protests are forcefully disrupted. Political prisoners remain behind bars. Dissidents face daily harassment. Dozens were arrested, with chilling irony, in the days before International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.
Nor has there been a moderation of the message emitted by the state-controlled news media, which isn’t much to ask for. The barrage of propaganda coming out of Havana fails to reflect the business-like atmosphere of the public diplomacy. Cuban spy Gerardo Hernández, who was returned to the island as part of the normalization deal, is being paraded around the island as a great hero of the revolution. There are unconfirmed rumors that he may become a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
The tone of all this is triumphalist — akin to Charlie Sheen’s delusional “Winning!” while on a self-destructive rampage. Let’s be clear: Cuba’s old guard is not winning anything. The octogenarian leaders are marking time. Soon, they’ll all be gone from the scene. Until then, the new U.S. policy is paving the way for ordinary Cubans to discover that Americans are not the enemy. The pretext for a police state is a transparent lie.
Reaching out to Cuba was the right thing to do. It spelled the end of the United States’ diplomatic isolation in Latin America. The recent setbacks to left-wing, populist governments in Venezuela and Argentina are not directly attributable to the normalization process in Cuba, but they’re part of the context. Taken together, these events put the United States in a far better position throughout the region.
Meanwhile, there has been incremental progress on a number of bilateral issues that would have been impossible under the old rules. The two countries struck a deal last week to re-establish direct mail service, which was cut in 1963. A commercial airline agreement may be next and, last week, Cuba turned over a wanted U.S. fugitive to federal marshals in a rare (though not unprecedented) extradition. And talks have begun on the outstanding property claims between the two countries.
The obdurate nature of the Cuban regime threatens to discredit the entire normalization process, however. If Cuba wants to see progress — and persuade the U.S. Congress to end the trade embargo — it must allow the Cuban people to enjoy political freedom.