President Barack Obama inadvertently found the perfect photo-op for his Cuba visit at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Jose Marti Memorial in Havana.
A news photo at Revolution Square caught Obama standing together with American and Cuban officials, with an enormous mural of the iconic revolutionary Che Guevara looming over his shoulder on the adjacent Ministry of the Interior building.
Che is, of course, ubiquitous on dorm-room walls and T-shirts in the United States, and a hero of the Cuban revolution. He also was a coldblooded killer who set up the Cuban gulag and presided over summary executions of political prisoners (trials were, per Che, “an archaic bourgeois detail”). No doubt, he would have been astonished at the Yanqui president coming to Revolution Square to pay his respects — and exceedingly pleased.
President Obama’s trip is self-consciously historic. As the president’s introducer at an event at the U.S. Embassy put it, Obama often said, “Yes, we can,” and now we can say, “Yes, we did.”
But did what? The trip ensures that the first visit to Cuba by an American president in almost 90 years will be part of Obama’s legacy, and seeks to make his opening to Cuba, announced in December 2014, irreversible. If that means extending credibility and a financial lifeline to a Castro regime that has no intention of reforming, so be it.
The regime made it clear that it wouldn’t bother with maintaining a pretense of relaxing its grip with the arrest of protesters at a march of the dissident group Ladies in White while President Obama was en route to the country. A reporter with a government news outlet told The New York Times that he and colleagues had been warned not even to discuss Obama’s visit with friends.
At a press conference with President Raul Castro on Monday, Obama spoke in euphemistic terms of our “two different systems,” eliding the fact that one system is open, democratic and prosperous, while the other is closed, dictatorial and economically ruinous. Castro railed against alleged human-rights abuses in the United States — Obama obligingly said he welcomed the dialogue — and El Presidente denied holding any political prisoners when reporters dared ask about it.
There is no sign of greater openness in Cuba since President Obama forged his break with long-standing U.S. policy. Political arrests have accelerated. There were more than 8,000 in 2015, four times as many as in 2010. The exodus of desperate Cubans to the United States has picked up. And the country still ranks below Zimbabwe and Iran on Internet connectivity.
But Obama’s opening has produced a financial windfall for the regime. The Cuban military occupies the commanding heights of the economy and controls the tourism business, which has been thriving with the influx of American tourists. Starwood Hotels and Resorts just got special permission from the U.S. Treasury to operate three hotels in Havana, in a boost, not for the free market, but for the Cuban government.
If Cuba were a repressive, small-minded military dictatorship of the right, Obama’s visit and accommodationist attitude wouldn’t be considered so broad-minded. But a patina of revolutionary romance, embodied by that image of Che looking down on President Obama, still hangs over Cuba. It makes its human-rights abuses, theft and lies an afterthought, or even excusable, for the American left.
After the Cuban missile crisis, Che said that in the event of a U.S. attack, “if the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression.” It would have been beyond his imagining that so many decades later, with the revolutionary regime cash-strapped and decrepit, the imperialist Goliath would come bearing gifts, and asking for nothing substantial in return, except a line in President Obama’s Wikipedia entry.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.