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Thaw Cuba policy with caution

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The Obama administration is dropping broad hints of possible changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Any change should come with a cautionary note: Watch what Cuba’s leaders do to dissidents and the average citizen alike, not what they say about "modernizing" Cuba.

It’s encouraging to hear that the administration is thinking about how to move the needle on Cuba, as President Obama told an audience in Miami recently. Too often Cuban issues are deemed politically risky and shoved aside.

But policy toward Cuba should not be forged in a vacuum. Raul Castro and his octogenarian colleagues show that they’re determined to hang onto power. They’re not interested in genuine democracy and they’re not about to tolerate any changes that could threaten their survival. The regime’s actions speak volumes about its true intentions:

— November began with a delay in the trial of three democracy activists arrested last year during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. The church has a new pope, but these dissidents are still in jail.

— The following weekend, Cuban security officials detained 30 members of the Ladies in White in yet another crackdown on freedom advocates, and a government mob pummeled a prominent dissident, Guillermo Farinas, when he dared complain to the police.

— On Oct. 14, police and a pro-government mob arrested 22 members of the Ladies in White who were marking the anniversary of the death of their founder.

— In September, more than 700 short-term detentions of dissidents were reported by Cuban human rights groups, one of the highest totals in years.

This goes to the heart of what Cuba’s dictatorship is all about — power. It’s important to put events in this context and not the false reality portrayed by the regime.

President Obama sparked speculation about upcoming changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba when he told a private Democratic Party fund-raiser here that "we have to continue to update our policies" toward that beleaguered nation. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated those same words in a major speech on Latin America.

The president said his administration would have to be "creative" and "thoughtful" in updating U.S. policy, words that Mr. Kerry echoed while noting that the two governments "are finding some cooperation on common interests."

Mr. Kerry properly noted changes in Cuba that make life a bit easier for people by allowing more Cubans to travel freely and work for themselves. But such changes and selective actions don’t portend a change in the nature of the regime. The secretary of State noted that this "should absolutely not blind us to the authoritarian reality of life for ordinary Cubans."

Exactly. Fortunately, that same message was delivered to Mr. Obama by two prominent dissidents when the president was in Miami.

Mr. Farinas and Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, met with President Obama at a Democratic fund-raiser hosted by Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. Mr. Mas Santos deserves credit for providing a useful venue for the president to hear directly from two brave dissidents.

Listen to opposition leaders who live in Cuba, they told Mr. Obama. Keep "tough sanctions" in place, disregarding "cosmetic changes" until the regime moves toward real democracy. Ensure that dissidents and civil society have a place at the table in any negotiations on Cuba.

That advice should be heeded as the administration ponders new moves toward a nation held captive for almost 55 years.

 

— The Miami Herald

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