Sometimes a handshake is more than just a handshake. When President Obama warmly embraced the late Hugo Chávez at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he lent respectability to a brutal autocrat who had crippled Venezuelan democracy, terrorized his political opponents, and supported both the Iranian theocracy and the Colombian FARC. When then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hugged Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa during a visit to Quito in 2010, she made Correa seem like a normal democratic president, rather than a thuggish Chávez acolyte who had persecuted independent journalists and gravely weakened his country’s public institutions.
Likewise, when a smiling Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s South African memorial service, he conferred on Castro a measure of legitimacy that no Communist dictator deserves, least of all one whose government continues to hold an American hostage.
The hostage’s name is Alan Gross, and he’s a 64-year-old humanitarian worker who went to Cuba several times in 2009 on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). His chief mission was to help the island’s tiny Jewish population—estimated at fewer than 1,500 people, in a nation of roughly 11.3 million—obtain Internet access. Upon completing his fifth trip, Gross was preparing to fly home, when he was arrested by Cuban authorities and accused of conducting espionage. It was a ludicrous allegation, but in March 2011 the Communist regime sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison.
He remains incarcerated today, and his health has deteriorated considerably. In a recent letter to President Obama, in which he pleaded for the president to help secure his release, Gross reported that he is “confined 23 hours a day to a small cell with two fellow inmates. I spend my one hour outside each day in a tiny enclosed courtyard. I don’t sleep much, between my arthritis and the lights in my cell, which are kept on 24 hours a day. With the exception of a few phone calls and visits, I am completely isolated from the outside world.”
On the very day that Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro—who has been Cuba’s official “president” since 2008, when Fidel Castro formally relinquished the position—the Miami Herald published a strong editorial about Gross, calling the imprisoned USAID contractor a symbol of “the fundamentally unchanged nature of the [Cuban] regime.” As if trying to prove the editorial’s point, the Cuban government rounded up many high-profile dissidents, and violently assaulted others, to prevent them from holding demonstrations in honor of International Human Rights Day (which was also the same day as Mandela’s memorial service). According to the Herald, “The crackdown appeared to be one of the broadest in years.”
The Treasury Department "fully licensed" Beyonce and Jay Z's trip to Cuba, according to Reuters.
"American pop star Beyonce and rapper husband Jay Z visited Havana last week on a cultural trip that was fully licensed by the United States Treasury Department, according to a source familiar with the trip," Reuters reports.
The Cuban regime has just announced a prisoner release, at the very end of 2011. This is partly an effort to get some positive publicity before the scheduled visit of the Pope, and partly a cold-blooded move by the regime to release older prisoners who are a burden on their prison system.
"In a strong statement this afternoon, Jon Kyl, the Senate's number-two Republican, says President Obama "should personally stand up and publicly condemn the attacks by the Assad regime on the Syrian people."
In a recent series of conversations with Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, Fidel Castro made several eyebrow-raising comments. The one that received the most attention was Castro’s assertion that the Cuban economic model no longer works. (He later tried, disingenuously, to backtrack on this statement.) Surprisingly, his remarks on Iran and anti-Semitism caused less of a splash. But these remarks were equally (if not more) significant, for they were part of a broader, ongoing charm offensive conducted by the Cuban dictatorship at a time of internal distress.
Jeffrey Goldberg is back from Cuba, where he was summoned by Fidel Castro after the former Cuban president read Goldberg’s recent article on the likelihood of an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Goldberg promises that his Havana adventure will be the subject of a forthcoming story, but in the meantime, he’s blogging about it, the highlight of which appears to be a dolphin show he watched alongside Fidel himself and the daughter of Che Guevara, whom we are told loved animals. And then there’s the dog-and-pony show, which was conducted solely for the benefit of The Atlantic’s national correspondent.
A few miles up the road from Ground Zero, the Obama administration recently submitted its account of the United States human rights record to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The administration’s report, the first ever submitted by this nation to that body (whose members include Libya and Cuba), was succinctly summarized by identical Washington Post and CBS News headlines: “US admits human rights shortcomings in UN report.”