Let’s be clear: I am not against lifting the embargo on Cuba.  What I am against is doing it without requiring the Cuban dictatorship to restore real and substantive freedoms to its people.

That is exactly what President Obama did yesterday.  He gave away a huge bargaining chip.  He did so with the naïve expectation that increased economic activity will somehow magically restore basic human rights to the Cuban people.

That won’t happen.

President Obama has again shown his propensity to kowtow to dictators in the hopes of changing their behavior.

- Raul Mas Canosa

Instead, the lifting of economic sanctions will provide a needed lifeline to keep the authoritarian regime afloat.  With oil prices collapsing, the Castro brothers could no longer count on Venezuela subsidizing their failed nation-state.  The Soviet Union is no more and Russia is today facing its own economic meltdown. Putin can send Cuba obsolete bombers and rusting warships.  He just can’t send any hard, cold cash.

So, at the perfect moment to pressure the Castro brothers on human rights, what does this administration do?

It throws in the towel.  It capitulates.  It single-handedly declares the embargo to be a failed policy; and then invokes dubious executive authority to revoke it.  In doing so, this administration throws life preservers to the Cuban dictatorship.  They also set up yet another confrontation with Congress as trade restrictions with Cuba are ingrained in US law; he can weaken them…but he can’t unilaterally make them go away.

Prominent dissident Yoani Sanchez, a vocal critic of the embargo, has expressed her skepticism about the one-sided nature of the change.  She is fearful that lifting the embargo’s restrictions will simply allow the Castro brothers to claim victory….without really fostering political reform on the island.

Earlier this fall, Rosa Maria Payá, the daughter of deceased Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, also expressed her doubts about the lifting of the embargo.  Writing in a Panamanian blog, she said:

“Lifting the US embargo is not the solution, because it is not the cause of our lack of political and economic rights. I’m in favor of coherent communication, but engagement and dialogue should not be a reward for the military elite from Havana that imposes its monologist agenda on my people while fostering intolerance and hostility with absolute impunity.”

I agree with Ms. Payá. Removing the embargo without any substantive pre-conditions will simply reward and entrench the septuagenarian military oligarchy that runs Cuba and controls its economy.  The increased cash flow will benefit them first and foremost.

At the same time, Cuba’s dissidents are essentially left to fend for themselves.  They know from experience that any promise to release political prisoners or expand internet access can be withdrawn in a heartbeat. It has happened time and time again.  The beatings and incarcerations will cease for a short time.  Then they will start again.

This time however, it may actually be worse for the dissidents.  Having “defeated” the Yankee imperialists and their oppressive embargo, Cuba’s security apparatus will likely feel emboldened—not constrained—when confronting protesters.  In fact, Raul Castro hailed the new action as one that would “construct a prosperous and sustainable socialism.”  This is hardly a sign of moderation or political reform.

Finally, the simultaneous prisoner exchange was another mistake.  I’m sorry but trading three convicted Cuban spies (involved in the murder of American citizens) for one innocent American hostage was not a good trade.  The last-minute addition of a heretofore unknown---but suddenly very important--- “intelligence asset” (who had previously languished in a Cuban prison for 20 years) strikes me as nothing more than a ruse to lend respectability to an otherwise lopsided and indefensible exchange.

The exchange is even more untenable when you throw in the dismantling of the embargo…with nothing done to promote democracy or to tangibly improve and protect the human rights movement in Cuba. Bowe Bergdahl was traded for five terrorist leaders.  Alan Gross was traded for the unshackling of an unrepentant and barbarous terrorist state.

President Obama has again shown his propensity to kowtow to dictators in the hopes of changing their behavior. Unfortunately, his actions will prove neither bold nor visionary.  It will set back rather than accelerate the democracy movement in Cuba.  

Thanks for nothing Mr. President.