PARIS—With his speech in Miami on Friday about U.S. relations with Cuba, President Donald Trump showed once again he’s ready to make the world safe for hypocrisy.
That he framed his remarks as a defense of human rights on the island dominated by the Castro brothers and their cronies since 1959 is laudable. Their record is atrocious. But, unfortunately, so is Trump’s.
What we’ve seen since his inauguration is that respect for human rights—indeed, even the mention of human rights—is waived if you are a country that is big enough and rich enough. The ostensible “leader of the free world” is not going to criticize you for jailing, torturing, executing, and even outright murdering your critics; he’ll make excuses for you, defend you, and, above all, look to make deals with you, whether diplomatic or financial or both.
Thus, although Trump’s reign has been short, the list of autocrats and dictators he’s embraced is long. One could start it with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, move south to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al Sisi, east to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman, onward to China’s Xi Jinping, and even the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
One might call this realpolitik. Just this week, for what may be worthwhile reasons, Trump appeared to be opening a new channel to North Korea with the help of the flamboyant former basketball star Dennis Rodman.
But human rights don’t figure in any of these relationships—not even as an afterthought.
So, where does Trump turn to make an example? Cuba.
The island is not a threat to the United States at any level, nor is it a market of much interest. It’s a nation with a population (12 million) less than metropolitan Los Angeles (13 million), and a gross domestic product ($87 billion) that’s a fraction of Miami’s (almost $300 billion).
Trump decided this was a place he could lay down the law.
"To the Cuban government, I say, put an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open yourselves to political and economic freedoms,” Trump proclaimed, then added: “Return the fugitives from American justice, including the return of the cop killer Joanne Chesimard." The former Black Panther was convicted of murder in 1977.
In fact, Trump is following the example of many American presidents before him, making a weak little island pay in one way or another for Washington’s frustrations on other fronts. The Great Wall of Mexico is going nowhere, so here’s another bit of get-tough posturing. And as Trump’s speech made clear, the new Cuba directives are meant to roll back another of President Barack Obama’s policies because, well, because they were Obama’s.
Except that most of them remain in place. The embassies are still open. Visits for cultural and business reasons are still allowed, and people returning to the States can still bring back rum and cigars.
Tightening requirements for American citizens visiting Cuba will be an annoyance to casual tourists and a burden on Cuban Americans, but many will find ways to work around the restrictions.
Barriers to transactions with Cuba’s Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), the conglomerate that dominates much of the island’s business, will hurt American companies more than the Cubans. But as The Washington Post points out, that may be convenient for the Trump family’s hotel business. The Trumps may feel they have to stay out of Cuba while the patron is in the White House; now their competitors may have to as well.
Sound cynical? The Cubans, and indeed most of the nations of Central America and the Caribbean, are used to this kind of thing.
One might recall that back in the mid-19th century, the slave-holding interests in the United States tried repeatedly to invade or buy the Spanish colony of Cuba in the name of democracy and freedom—for white people—in hopes they could annex it as an extra couple of slave states with votes in the House and Senate to insure the dominance of the slavocracy on Capitol Hill.
That ended with the U.S. Civil War, but at the end of the 19th century, once again in the name of democracy and freedom, the United States went to war against Spain and took over all its colonies, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Almost overnight the U.S. became a global empire waging what Rudyard Kipling called “the savage wars of peace” in his ironic poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which was about the Americans’ new imperialist vocation.
Over the years, U.S. troops or their surrogates invaded Mexico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba with a kind of nonchalance that was only brought up short when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro turned to Russia for a nuclear shield—and won a guarantee of no more invasions even when the missiles were withdrawn. The CIA proceeded with coup plots and covert actions, however, from Cuba to Chile.
By 1980, the pattern of doing in Latin America by default what wouldn’t be dared elsewhere in the world was well established.
A few days after Ronald Reagan was elected president, I talked to the then-U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Lawrence Pezzullo. Like other State Department officials, he feared that diplomacy would give way to dangerous posturing “south of the border.”
"It's going to be our ideological blinders that may cause us to make mistakes," Pezzullo said. "This is a new administration, there are going to be tradeoffs, and you've got to feed your right-wing somewhere. Maybe you'll just let them eat up Latin America. It's cheaper than some other places like the Middle East, the Soviet Union or China, where no president is going to have much room for radical policy changes." He paused and reflected for a moment. "That's the way I tend to think things will go," he said, "just feed it to the lions."
That is exactly what happened in the following decade with death squads in El Salvador, the invasion of Granada, the Contra war in Nicaragua, and, a bit later, the invasion of Panama.
All were “savage wars of peace” listing among the causes the protection of human rights, and none did much in the end to assure them. El Salvador, for instance, is overrun by gangs. Nicaragua is ruled by the same Sandinistas that Reagan waged a covert war to overthrow.
Trump’s Cuba pronouncements are, mercifully, much less violent—for now. But Havana know that when U.S. presidents feel weak and frustrated, they turn to Cuba to show how tough they really are.
UPDATE, 2:15 a.m. EDT, June 17, 2017: In a statement, Cuban President Raul Castro said any attempt to change the island's political system would fail, and Trump was "poorly advised" by an "extremist minority" of Cuban-Americans living in Florida. (He may have been thinking of Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the intelligence committee ostensibly investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia, and who played a key role getting Trump to Miami for Friday's speech.) As for political prisoners, Castro said, "the United States is not in a position to give us lessons," noting the "numerous cases of murders, brutality and police abuses, the exploitation of child labor, racial discrimination, and restrictions on healthcare services" in Cuba's northern neighbor.