The headline at Politico was not reassuring: “Castro and Obama Agree to Disagree on Human Rights, Freedom.” The article detailed the divergent views of the two leaders that become manifest at a joint press conference during President Barack Obama’s visit to the island nation the past couple of days, but also noted that the president made clear he was not seeking to impose U.S. norms on the island nation.
No one should harbor any allusions about the Castro regime. It systematically and effectively denies its people rights that we in the U.S. take for granted. There really are political prisoners. There really are restrictions on the press. There really is no organized political opposition. The injustices perpetrated in the name of the Revolution far outweigh the achievements of the Revolution.
That said, the policy of embargo and isolation the United States has pursued for more than fifty years clearly has not done anything to improve the human rights situation on the island. President Obama is correct to try a different approach and hope that by opening diplomatic and other relations with the island, other cultural forces might succeed in bringing new freedoms to the inhabitants of Cuba that the embargo did not bring.
The U.S. government, however, should not simply “agree to disagree.” When our values cease to be a part of our foreign policy, we lose our compass in a chaotic and often brutal world. Yes, there are times when our security interests require us to lower our concern for human rights, but we should always regret when we have to look the other way when violent atrocities or even more mundane denials of human dignity are being perpetrated by a regime that we cannot, for other reasons, bring ourselves to oppose.
No one knows how Cuba will transition to its own future. When the Berlin Wall came down, and Yeltsin stared down the putsch, we all celebrated the possibility of freedom. I remember the night the happily named “coup plotters” in Russia were arrested and we broke out champagne for everyone at the restaurant where I worked. No one can forget Lenny Bernstein going to Berlin on Christmas Day 1989 to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony after the wall fell, and changing the word “freude” to “freiheit” in the chorus of the fourth movement. Alas, things turned out better for the people of Berlin than for the people of Moscow. China has managed to open up its economy while restricting personal freedoms in every other regard. What will be Cuba’s future?
It was also not reassuring that the State Department twitter account was sending out information about the president’s visit with representations of the flag of the U.S. and the flag of….Puerto Rico. The flags of the two island nations share a design, but the colors are reversed: The flag of Cuba has blue stripes and the flag of Puerto Rico has red ones. Indeed, it is problematic that President Obama’s administration seems to have more interest in Cuba these days than in Puerto Rico, even though the people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.
It was a good sign that President Obama’s first stop upon arrival was at the Cathedral in Havana where he received a tour from Cardinal Jaime Ortega. This was not only a nod to the role played by the Catholic Church in facilitating the negotiations that led to the renewal of diplomatic relations, but more importantly, a recognition that the Church is one of the few actors in civil society in Cuba that exists independently of the state. Whatever transition will be forthcoming, the Church will play a vital role. There is a lesson there for the Obama administration when it considers the role of the Church in U.S. society also, yes?
The Holy Father has called us Catholics to build bridges, not walls, to include not exclude. Catholic leaders in the U.S. have encouraged the administration in its desire to end the embargo and improve relations with Cuba. Neither will guarantee that the Cuban people will become more free anytime soon, but both make that possibility closer to a reality than merely continuing to pretend Cuba does not exist. The Obama administration is to be commended for this change in policy. It was impossible not to be moved listening to the "Star Spangled Banner" being played again at the Palace of the Revolution. Let’s hope they also understand that there is, nonetheless, something incongruent about appearing underneath a massive image of Che Guevara when one is the “leader of the Free World.”