Other Voices

Obama’s impact in Cuba will be limited

Cuban President Raul Castro, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands Monday in Havana.
Cuban President Raul Castro, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands Monday in Havana. AP

People will assess the impact of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba for years to come, but a long conversation with Cuba’s oldest and best-known human-rights leader left me skeptical that there will be significant changes on the island anytime soon.

I talked with Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, 72, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, hours before he returned to Cuba after a family visit to Miami last week.

He was detained for 3  1/2 hours on his arrival in Havana Saturday, and he is scheduled to attend a private meeting between Obama and a small group of Cuban dissidents in Havana on Tuesday.

After breaking with the Castro dictatorship in the 1960s, Sanchez founded the commission to keep track of the regime’s human-rights abuses and became one of the government’s most vocal critics.

At the same time, he has always opposed the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and has supported the re-establishment of diplomatic ties.

Still, Sanchez has no illusions that Obama’s trip will bring about any important changes on the island.

In fact, there has been “a big increase” in repression of peaceful oppositionists since Obama’s Dec. 17, 2014, opening to Cuba, he told me.

There were more than 2,500 short-term detentions for political reasons in the first two months of this year.

What do you think about Obama’s assertion that new U.S. trade ties with Cuba will bring about incremental economic changes, which in time may result in greater political freedoms? I asked him.

“If I’m not mistaken, that’s what you call ‘wishful thinking,’” Sanchez said. “There have been no real reforms in Cuba, but only small administrative changes, which are not laws and can be reversed anytime.”

Why are you afraid that these small “administrative changes,” such as greater freedom to travel abroad for Cubans, will be reversed? I asked.

Because it has happened many times before, Sanchez responded.

“The Castro brothers need to keep alive the image of a foreign enemy. The image of a foreign enemy is indispensable for any dictatorship,” Sanchez said.

President Jimmy Carter, much like Obama today, opened up a U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana — known as a U.S. interests section — in 1977, and wanted to continue improving ties with the Cuban regime, Sanchez explained.

But Fidel Castro sabotaged these efforts by unleashing the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which badly hurt the Carter presidency.

“Carter extended his hand, and Castro bit it,” Sanchez said. Castro ordered the Mariel boatlift in order to create a conflict with the United States and keep alive the Cuban regime’s excuse for repression, he added.

My opinion: I agree.

Only a major international diplomatic offensive to help restore fundamental rights in Cuba, now that the Cuban regime’s claim of a continued U.S. threat sounds increasingly ridiculous, can start to bring about a political opening on the island.

Without that offensive, the impact of Obama’s trip will be minimal and short-lived.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. aoppenheimer-