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.”
In other words, the Obama administration’s outreach and unilateral concessions to Havana—which included the easing of U.S. sanctions in 2009 and again in 2011—have yet to improve the Communist government’s record on human rights. In fact, while the regime has been introducing a series of economic, travel, and tourism reforms, Cuban political repression got substantially worse last year. Just ask Freedom House (“The Cuban government oversaw a systematic increase in short-term ‘preventative’ detentions of dissidents in 2012, in addition to harassment, beatings, acts of repudiation, and restrictions on foreign and domestic travel”) or Amnesty International (“Repression of independent journalists, opposition leaders, and human rights activists increased”). For that matter, according to the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR), there were 24 percent more arbitrary detentions by government agents reported in the first nine months of 2012 than there were in all of 2011, and 146 percent more than in all of 2010. CCHRNR says there were 909 dissident arrests in Cuba this past October, which represents “one of the highest monthly totals in the past decade,” notes Agence France-Presse.
There is also compelling evidence that the Castro regime may have murdered Cuban democracy activists Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, both of whom died after a highly suspicious car crash in July 2012, along with Ladies in White founder Laura Pollán, who died under equally suspicious circumstances in October 2011, just weeks after being attacked by Castroite thugs. Meanwhile, Cuban officials continue to help Venezuela consolidate a socialist dictatorship, and over the summer Havana was caught trying to ship arms to North Korea in violation of a global embargo. In addition, we should remember that Cuba is one of only four foreign governments that Washington classifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. (The others are Iran, Sudan, and Syria.)
Thus, the main obstacle to U.S.-Cuban détente is not American sanctions or American intransigence. It is the appalling behavior of the Castro dictatorship. There’s nothing wrong with “engaging” Havana on issues of bilateral concern, especially if that engagement helps to liberate Alan Gross. But President Obama did not need to shake Raúl Castro’s hand on international television. “Until now,” writes veteran U.S. diplomat Otto Reich, “every American president had studiously avoided this mistake: At U.N. and other gatherings U.S. Secret Service agents and diplomats were under orders to make sure such a ‘photo op’ so highly desired by the Castros did not happen.”
Indeed, while Obama may not have realized the symbolic significance of his gesture, he just handed the Communist regime a big propaganda victory.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.