Given the situation in Cuba today, one could imagine a U.S. President today commenting on the recent clashes with human rights activists in various cities in Cuba and the detentions of these activists, or on the recent release from prison of the remaining 52 of the 75 arrested in the spring of 2003 – plus other prisoners – in a process in which Cuba’s Catholic church participated. Twelve of those remained in Cuba and continue their activism; the rest departed for Spain with hundreds of family members.
Instead, President Obama said last week that he is “prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a Cold War mentality” but wants “to see a signal back from the Cuban government that it is following through on releasing political prisoners, on providing people their basic human rights, in order for us to be fully engaged with them.”
Fair enough, there remains plenty to criticize in Cuba’s human rights record even after the prisoner releases. But to speak as if those releases have not occurred, not to factor them into any formulation about the human rights situation, appears out of touch.
When it comes to recent economic developments, one could imagine President Obama recognizing positive changes such as eased licensing of private entrepreneurs and the doubling of their ranks since last fall, and at the same time noting uncertainties about the environment in which they operate, and about the economic reform process in general.
Instead, President Obama recognized that economic rights are an integral part of human rights: the rights “to work, to change jobs, to get an education, to start a business.” As far as Cuba is concerned: “So some elements of freedom are included in how an economic system works. And right now, we haven’t seen any of that.”
Again in this case a standing ovation is not in order, but it is surprising to see the President failing to ground his remarks – whatever his subjective conclusion – in the actual events (including an explosion of small-scale entrepreneurship) that are at the root of so much debate in Cuba today.
Why float so ethereally above it all, almost avoiding the subject? My guess is that President Obama’s real message is simple: “I’m busy, I’m done for now with Cuba policy, and re-election is approaching.”