On April 6, Ambassador Jeffrey S. Davidow, White House Advisor for the Summit of the Americas, said very plainly: “It would be unfortunate if the principal theme of [the Summit of the Americas] turned out to be Cuba. As I’ve told you, I think there are a lot of very important issues that warrant discussion, whether it’s the economic issue, social inclusion, the environment, public safety. We would prefer, obviously, to focus on what we have been preparing for, but there is no effort on our part to try to stifle conversation on any topic.”
Some in Congress believe exactly the opposite. This became quite apparent during a visit by members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Havana this week. The trip included dinner with Cuba’s President Raul Castro and a rare opportunity for three members of the delegation to speak with Fidel Castro. The delegation, according to the press, did not meet with any dissidents or opposition figures.
Several members of Congress want to force President Obama’s hand and pressure him to remove as quickly as possible all restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. They want this done largely on Cuba’s terms, without leveraging a single concession from the Castro brothers. They also seek to convey the impression that the climate in Havana is ripe for dialogue and negotiation.
“I’m convinced Raul Castro wants a normal relationship with the United States,” reported Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chair of the Caucus, after meeting with Raul. “He’s serious.” But added Ms. Lee, “We didn’t get into any of the details. We just want to see a dialogue. You don’t have to offer anything to talk.”
Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL), who downplayed the importance of human rights in Cuba before the trip, reported that Raúl Castro was “very engaging” and “laughed at himself.” ‘Rush added “He was a down-to-earth kind man, someone who I would favor as a neighbor.”
Ms. Rush has apparently forgotten that Raul, a Marxist-Leninist since the 1950s, was among other things the ruthless executioner of Cuba’s opposition, trigger man in the shoot down of the unarmed civilian aircraft of the Brothers to the Rescue, and architect of recent leadership purges and intrigues that mark the behind scenes jockeying for control in a one-party state.
“It was almost like listening to an old friend,” enthused Representative Rush, after meeting with the ailing Fidel Castro, adding that he found Castro’s home to be modest and Castro’s wife to be particularly hospitable.
In Cuba where the monthly earnings of the average citizen are less than $20 and where hunger is a real problem because of the disasters of the communist command economy, it is wise to appear to live modestly when receiving foreign visitors.
Congresswoman Laura Richardson (D-CA), also selected to meet with Fidel, giddily commented, Castro “looked directly into our eyes” and asked how Cuba could help Obama change U.S-Cuba policy.
Did Ms. Richardson reply: “Free your political prisoners; remove restrictions on travel, internet access, and the media, or engage in a serious dialogue with civil society and dissident groups?” Or did she raise the case of political prisoner and Cuban-African, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet? Apparently not.
In his reflections following the meeting, Fidel Castro wrote glowingly of the conversation with the Americans that touched on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, apparently elevating himself to a similar moral stature, but Fidel testily concluded, that since Cuba has never attacked and threatened the U.S., his country was in no position to take any initiatives to improve relations with the U. S. Read: the ball will as always remains in the U.S. court.
The well-timed, Castro charm offensive coupled with the troubling amnesia on the part of the American delegation reads like an updated version of “Innocents Abroad.”
President Obama certainly will have in part members of his own party to thank when he is placed in the hot spot at the Summit of the Americas on U.S.-Cuba relations. Let us hope that his sense of historical memory, his capacity not to be seduced by the siren calls of aging tyrants, and his solidarity with the Cuban people is stronger than that demonstrated by the visiting members from the U.S. Congress.