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Obama's latest gift to Castro
Diplomacy: At a time when socialist mismanagement has put Cuba on the ropes, the Obama administration has decided to unleash a new wave of U.S. visits and remittances to tide the dictatorship over. For Castro, it's pennies from heaven.
Late last Friday, the Obama administration said it would ease restrictions on contacts and cash with Cuba in about three weeks.
Loosely defined student and church groups would be able to travel to the communist country, and any American would be able to remit up to $2,000 per year to Cuba, with few restrictions. Until now, only exiles could make such visits and send limited transfers. Now, anyone can.
The move largely restores relations to the Clinton-era status quo of 1996. But it sends a lousy message to U.S. allies like Colombia — whose free-trade pact is treated contemptuously — and, more to the point, amounts to a big gift to the Castro regime just when it needs one.
If Obama's past is any indication, he probably did it to please supporters on the left, who've been angry with him lately. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the travel loosening are likely to be radical pro-Castro groups that earn cash on "reality tours." Global Exchange, for instance, led by wealthy Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, sends leftists to Cuba to sing the regime's praises. Cuba is picky about who gets in, and these groups will have the edge.
With ObamaCare under fire, it might even serve Obama's agenda to have such groups singing the praises of socialized medicine as better than the U.S. alternative.
But the biggest beneficiary of all will be Fidel Castro.
It's he who will end up with the extra money, which is already about $2 billion a year. Anyone sending remittances to Cuba pays a 20% tax off the top, and often a 10% exchange fee. Cubans who buy something with the cash in government-owned stores pay other fees.
In the end, the regime gets all the money, notes prominent Cuban-American Val Prieto, who blogs at Babalu.
"It's like going to the casino," Prieto said. "The odds favor the house."
Unlike visits, the remittances may be more policy than politics. Mauricio Claver-Carone, a top lobbyist at the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington, believes that based on recent Defense Department and State Department position papers, the White House may be bailing out Castro because it fears Cuba may collapse on its watch.
"The administration doesn't want a confrontation," Claver said. "They know they'll stabilize the Cuban economy with these changes." He notes that the Castro regime doesn't have the hard currency to back all its purchases from Spain right now — the very same crisis Cuba was in when Clinton loosened rules in the 1990s.
Clinton meant to stabilize the regime to prevent another Mariel flotilla. Obama may be thinking the same thing.
The bottom line is that these changes benefit and further entrench the failed Castro regime at a time when it should be thinking about becoming a democracy.
And for the U.S., it creates significant risks:
Writer Humberto Fontova notes that stepped-up cultural exchanges have always been opportunities for the Castro regime to recruit spies, for one.
Prominent here was the case of Defense Intelligence Agency official Ana Montes, arrested in 2001 as a Cuban spy, and last year's case of two State Department traitors.
All were veterans of Cuban "cultural exchanges."
There's also the opportunity for Castro to take hostages. If U.S. church groups come into the country and pass out satellite phones, which is what Alan Gross did 13 months ago, they could be jailed without trial or due process.
Castro is holding Gross hostage because he believes he can swap him for five of his own spies. Visiting church groups will present new opportunities for Castro to go hostage shopping.
Castro uses remittance cash as a coercive tool to keep Cubans and their U.S. relatives docile. Anyone who doesn't behave gets his remittance cash cut off by the regime, thus dampening any calls for reform.
Today, reform in Cuba is needed more than ever. The Cuban regime has announced plans to lay off 15% of its work force, yet it refuses to open its foundering economy even to save its own hide.
With all these problems, it's an ideal time for the U.S. to take the lead on forcing Cuba's totalitarian rulers to face reality. Instead, we've just kicked the can down the road.