To the surprise of no one who has followed either the career of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or the traditions of Cuban-American politics, the GOP's presidential number-two is spluttering with indignation at President Barack Obama's historic trip this week to Cuba. From a Cruz-authored piece in Politico:
[I]t is so sad, and so injurious to our future as well as Cuba's, that Obama has chosen to legitimize the corrupt and oppressive Castro regime with his presence on the island.
The White House keeps saying that this trip will chart a new course for people-to-people relations, but all that Obama's appeasement of the Castro dictatorship has done so far is create a channel for inside deals between large corporations and the Cuban military, which holds all the keys to the island's economy. The effect will not be liberalization but rather the institutionalization of the Communist dictatorship as the profits from this détente will line the pockets not only of Fidel and Raul Castro, but also of Raul's son, Alejandro Castro Espin.
Do official presidential visits give legitimacy to oppressive regimes? Then George W. Bush conferred legitimacy on Saudi Arabia, his dad did likewise to the Soviet Union (as did Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon), and of course that Nixon fellow famously propped up Red China.
As for "appeasement," just because Republican politicians have serially debased this Neville Chamberlain-echoing word beyond all human recognition doesn't makes its deployment here any less egregious. With the exception of a three-for-two swap of Cuban agents for Castro-imprisoned Americans, and the politicized removal of Cuba from the State Department's arbitrary list of nations that support terrorism, almost every other policy change President Obama has made—and wisely so—has involved lifting restrictions on Americans: to visit Cuba, to send money to the relatives back home, and so on.
Cruz, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and other anti-Castro hawks, makes the category error of assuming that a more prosperous Cuban population makes for a more powerful Castro regime. As I attempted to explain in December 2014, back when it was Rubio banging the "appeasement" drum,
If I hand a Cuban friend $100 in Havana, that Cuban now has $100 (which is four or five times the average monthly salary). Now, that friend may pay consumption taxes on things he buys with that $100 at a state-owned store, or pay taxes on the interest he earns by depositing the sum, but the bulk of the transaction goes to the individual Cuban, on terms that the Cuban governmet cannot "control." Yes, increased transfers from Americans to Cubans will no doubt increase the net receipts of the Cuban government. But it will also doubtlessly increase the share of the island's total money owned by individuals. It will, in other words, increase individual autonomy in one of the most repressed countries on earth.
Since then I have re-visited the island (for the first time since 1998) and observed this phenomenon up close. A noticeable segment of the population has gained at least some financial and experiential independence from the police state. They are not, in my observation, spending that extra money on flower arrangements for the Revolution. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) told us during our visit, "You have about 25 percent of Cubans who work fully in the private sector…. The big change is the number of Cubans being able to not have to rely on government and therefore can hold their government more accountable. I would say that we've passed the point of no return."
Wishful thinking? Sure. But a 25 percent private sector is a big number in a totalitarian state, and the other alternative—exacerbating the home-created misery of the Cuban population—didn't exactly produce boffo results for the previous half-century.
I share Ted Cruz's concern about the appalling state of freedom in Castro's open-air prison, and I sincerely hope President Obama takes the opportunity of his big Havana speech to acknowledge Cuban political prisoners by name. There is nothing antithetical to championing human rights and international exchange. But Cruz's characterization of the president's actions as "cav[ing] to a communist dictator in our own hemisphere" demonstrates a politician addicted to his own cheap anti-Obama demagoguery, and to a policy that heedlessly restricted American freedom in the demonstrably futile goal of spreading the stuff 90 miles away.