President Obama recently completed an unprecedented trip to Cuba from 21 to 22 March, meeting Cuban leader Raúl Castro (brother of the ailing Fidel) and working to establish a new relationship with the communist state. It was the first visit of a US president to Cuba in 90 years, involving a delegation of some 1,200 businesspeople and congressional leaders.

Secret talks had already been conducted in December 2014 that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States last July. A significant step, considering the 57-year long sulk the two nations have sat out. To say nothing of the US economic blockade of the country. In February commercial flights to Cuba officially resumed.

The White House said the visit was “another demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course” and by doing so “connect US and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce, and access to information” in order to induce the “normalisation” of relations. Obama met with the Cuban leader, as well as attending a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team on the final day of the trip.

Although the trip may seem impromptu, the thaw in relations between the US (during the Obama presidency) and Cuba has been a long time in the making. In 2009 Obama loosened travel restrictions on commuting to and from Cuba, focused on American citizens of Cuban descent. Telecommunication restrictions were also lifted, with the aim of giving Cubans greater access to the internet. In May of last year, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In July, the two countries opened embassies.

Some have been lauding this as progress and portraying Raul Castro as a “moderate” who is focused on opening up Cuba and lessening the repressive conditions, including dismantling the “labyrinthine” restrictions faced by ordinary Cubans attempting to deal in trade and private property.

Obama has capitalised on this talking point. When talking to ABC’s David Muir in Havana, the president argued that his intention “has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn’t going to happen overnight.” However, he maintained that “coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change” in the country.

The reason he saw the opportunity for change? “Change is going to happen [in Cuba] and I think that [President] Raúl Castro understands that.” In other words, the premise of the visit is Raúl’s presidency being a catalyst for future change.

Obama took some time to pay lip service to opposing the lack freedoms in Cuba, stating that “citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear” and that Cubans should be allowed to “organize and to criticize their government and to protest peacefully” without facing the threat of arrest. “You’ve got more than 300 million potential American customers and one of the world’s most dynamic cities, Miami, right next door,” Obama warmly added. “America wants to be your partner.”

Obama claims that he’s in Cuba in order to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas”, while constantly stressing the fact that this won’t be able to happen “without continued change here in Cuba”.

However, the reasoning may be far less benevolent. The US knows full well that the state of change in Cuba is cosmetic at best. While long-time leader Fidel Castro has ostensibly relinquished power, his elderly brother Raúl has filled his shoes For all intents and purposes, Cuba is still led by the same ageing, reactionary clique.

Cuban dissidents in particular aren’t too happy about Obama’s trip, and rightly so. While Obama may have painstakingly taken every possible chance to wax lyrical about human rights abuses, his visit has done more damage to their cause than anything else. His visit to Cuba is an endorsement of a regime that has done very little to change anything; everything from praising alleged “changes” to friendly meetings with Raúl.

Now the Castro regime (which has been coming under increasing domestic fire for summary arrests of dissidents and restrictions on internet access) has been given a fresh lease of legitimacy, and possibly staying power. When domestic critics slam the regime for authoritarianism, Raúl will simply be able to point to Obama’s visit and condemn them for “interfering” in his reform process. After all, if the president of the free world expresses confidence in him, why shouldn’t they?

Obama’s visit has given the United States no solid gains. No trade agreements were made, the embargo hasn’t been lifted, and Castro took a golden opportunity to grumble about America and defend his human rights record in front of the world’s media outlets. In fact, Obama’s reputation has suffered among Cuban-Americans due to his friendliness towards the Castro regime. On the other hand, Castro was able to keep up his anti-American rhetoric and change very little. In return he struck gold and received an endorsement from the president of the United States.

Cuban activist Ailer González wasn’t too thrilled. Speaking to the Guardian, she angrily voiced her frustration with the visit as she watched it unfold on television.  “What the hell! If you talk of change, change the regime!” Turning to her thoughts on Obama, what followed was probably the most revealing  (and the most incriminating) statement: “This is not reality, it is Obama’s vision of the future. Who does he think he is? A guru? This speech is a gift to Raúl Castro.”

“This way of speaking reminds me of Fidel. Long-winded and dodging the real issues.”

This angry outburst has some basis in reality. From the start of his presidency, Obama has laboured under the genuine belief that he is the president who can bring America’s most unyielding enemies in from the cold, by giving them rhetorical and material support and a variety of concessions (without getting much in return). Obama is determined to secure his legacy as the US president who brought America’s enemies in from the cold, regardless of how many tyrants have to be endorsed. An anti-government protest in Cuba was quickly beaten into submission before Obama’s arrival (and wasn’t discussed when he did arrive).

The Iranian Green Revolution that erupted after the fraudulent 2009 elections was sold down the river in favour of Khamenei’s survival. Prior to the elections, Obama even wrote a letter to the supreme leader, promising no interference. Khamenei dutifully took this as a green light to suppress the opposition. Over 150 people were killed and 4000 arrested before the protests finally fizzled out in February of 2010 as Obama watched impassively; an end to the Iranian regime would have derailed his desire to be the one man responsible for a détente.

The hand extended to Iran was also extended to other regimes too, in spite of how little the US got from Iran in return for protecting Iranian interests in Syria and bowing to Iranian pressure during the nuclear negotiations (as well as providing Iran’s genocidal militias with an air force in Iraq). Before his presidency even began, Obama was reaching out to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with promising hints of a new relationship between the US and Syria. Despite the fact that Obama was yet to be sworn in, a meeting was held between US representatives and a Syrian delegation (in secret) in Beirut.

The Syrians told the US delegation that Damascus is interested in defusing tensions in the regions, is earnestly pursuing talks with Israel, and wants the Americans to sponsor and participate in these talks. Damascus holds no grudges towards the US administration and believes that the best way to sort out problems is through dialogue.

On 21 February 2009, Kerry and Assad held an official meeting in front of the world’s media outlets in Damascus.  The motivation for Obama’s meeting soon became clear; Kerry placed emphasis on the fact that “Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government” between the Palestinians and Israel.

This would not only be a “major step forward in dealing with “problems” in Gaza (the Hamas government) but would also “reignite discussions for the two-state solution … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.” The meeting between the two came days before Egypt-sponsored talks between Palestinian factions.

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Not only did Obama want to bring Damascus in from the cold, but also to be the US president who finally brought peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas was hosted by the regime in Damascus until 2011, and Syria had some influence on Fatah. Interestingly enough, Kerry described his meeting with Assad as “an important moment of change” for the Middle East. Just as Obama recently praised Raul Castro as an agent of change.

Obama’s hopes were dashed when the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, and he was obliged to reluctantly call for Assad to step down. Hilary Clinton had still been calling Assad a “reformer” weeks into the revolution, with the regime preoccupied with beating, shooting and torturing protesters.

Even then, the Obama administration was focused on preserving Assad through changes at the top, not in helping Syrians to dismantle it from below.  “There needs to be a change at the top of that government, and there needs to be an effort to engage in genuine dialogue and start on the path of reform”, Clinton said. In 2014, former ambassador Robert Ford insisted that “From the beginning, we have seen the only way out of this conflict is that there would ultimately have to be a negotiation between the opposition and the regime.”

Obama assisted the revolutionary forces in nations like Libya, where Gaddafi’s continued hold on power had no relevance to his strategic interests. Assad was a different matter; ending his bloody campaign of terror would anger his Iranian allies and derail the friendship with Tehran. In the words of Tony Badran:

The administration has made plain that the endgame it wants is premised on continuity of the regime – what it has euphemistically referred to as “preserving state institutions.” In line with this desired outcome, administration officials have also stated that they do not wish to see an outright rebel victory. Needless to say, these preferences are decidedly pro-regime.

Over the past three years, the administration’s choices have been consistent with these desired goals – decisions that have handicapped the opposition’s backers, but not the regime’s. As such, the White House maneuvered to block political and military avenues that the rebels’ state backers like France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have sought. When these states attempted to bypass the Russian veto at the Security Council, the administration made Moscow its principal partner in Syria.

When Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and bombed Ghouta with chemical weapons, Obama rehabilitated him by striking a dubious disarmament deal with the aid of Russia.

There is little difference in strategy between Obama’s approach to the Assad regime and approach the the Castro regime. In fact, Cuban dissidents accuse Obama of “undermining” their efforts to end the regime at a stroke. Obama’s claim of caring about human rights while hobnobbing with Raúl Castro is questionable. US presidents paying deference to dictators never ends well, as the approach initially taken towards Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime can demonstrate.

Since Ceaușescu’s speech of 21 August 1968 in which he had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Romanian president had portrayed himself as a maverick within the Soviet bloc, opposed to the heavy Russian hand. Western leaders loved it, seeing Ceaușescu’s defiance of the Soviets as a divisive catalyst that could culminate in the breakup of the Eastern bloc.

Ceaușescu’s gamble paid off; in 1969 then-president Richard Nixon paid a visit to Bucharest in a show of support for the leader. Nixon was thrilled at the warm reception he received from the crowds, perhaps not paying much attention to the hundreds of Securitate (secret police) hacks watching over the masses to ensure that they applauded diligently.

In 1972, a convention on protecting citizens and their property was signed, Romania received U.S. Export-Import Bank credits. In April 1975, most favored nation (MFN) status was given to Romania, and renewed every year. The renewal allegedly took into account Romania’s human rights and emigration record annually. Which is odd, since Radio Free Europe (managed by the CIA) was regularly broadcasting news of horrendous human rights abuses by Ceaușescu’s Securitate. The enemy of my enemy…

In 1978, Ceaușescu attained his biggest prize yet; a visit to the United States which included spending time with Jimmy Carter at the White House. That same year, Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the de facto leader of Romania’s Foreign Intelligence Service (DIE, Directia Informatii Externe) defected to the United States, exposing many of Ceaușescu’s secrets.

It turned out that Ceaușescu’s perceived “independence” from the Soviet bloc had been a deliberate ruse; an attempt to reel in lucrative western support and foreign investment for a largely-backward Romania, as well as gain access to western technical and military secrets that could be stolen to enhance Soviet and Romanian capabilities. In 1987 Pacepa published Red Horizons, detailing the efforts of Ceaușescu to use the image of a “reformer” to win westerners’ and minds – and get into their pockets.

“Our experience shows that today the West is commendably eager to encourage the slightest sign of independence within the Soviet bloc”, Ceaușescu told the assembled DIE leaders on February 22 1972. “Let’s take advantage of their eagerness”, added the leader during his speech. “Stop showing a sullen, frowning face and clenched fist to the West. Start making it feel compassion for us, and you’ll see how fast Western boycotts change into maganimity. Let’s present Romania as a Latin island in a Slavic sea…”

Pacepa alleged that even Brezhnev himself had thanked Ceaușescu for successfully duping westerners into believing in Romania’s “independence”. But most importantly, for the benefits it had granted Romania’s industrial espionage methods. He praised Romania’s infiltration of Texas Instruments and the theft of technical secrets, explaining that “Moscow considered it one of the most valuable contributions to the Wawsaw Pact’s military strength.” The use of the stolen technology had led to a “major improvement in the latest Wawsaw Pact military equipment.”

Ceaușescu was eventually overthrown in 1989, after the lifeline extended to his regime had been prolonged for years.During that time, the quality of life for the average Romanian went rapidly downhill when he decided to introduce harsh austerity methods in order to rid Romania of all foreign debt. Food became scarce, blackouts were frequent, and medical care so appalling that 10,000 babies and young children ended up infected with HIV (which the regime declared to be non-existent in Romania). In fact, so slow was the United States in moving against Romania’s MFN status that Ceaușescu withdrew it himself, the year before he was deposed and summarily executed.

Pacepa 1
Two photographs extracted from Red Horizons.

Assad painted himself as a “reformer” for over a decade, earning endorsements from both the United States and other hopeful nations. He used those endorsements to shore up his popularity and do little else. Months before the 2011 uprising, he sneered in an interview (for domestic consumption only) that he didn’t “promise” to reform anything. Iran’s new leader Hassan Rouhani was elected on the premise that he was a “moderate” pro-regime official. The killing by Iranian forces and their proxies has continued in Syria, domestic oppression continued, Rouhani was exposed as having boasted of deceiving the west about the Iranian nuclear program.

“The day that we invited the three European ministers [to the talks], only 10 centrifuges were spinning at [the Iranian nuclear facility of] Natanz,” Rouhani said. The negotiations were engaged in because “we needed time.”

Ceaușescu was a “reformer”, Assad is also a “reformer”, as is his ally Rouhani. Now Raúl Castro is being touted by Obama as a “reformer” whom we have no choice but to engage with. If we don’t do business with him then a crucial chance to improve the lives of the Cuban people is supposedly lost. This is a disingenuous in the extreme.

Engaging with such a regime has precisely the opposite effect. Dictators always take attempts at thawing relations as a sign of weakness or exploit them for PR purposes. Or worse, such newfound friendships fill their pockets at the expense of the living standards of their people. More often than not, authoritarian rulers marketing themselves as “reformers” aim to restrict their efforts at change to opening the economy to foreign investment, placating their people and lessening chances of insurrection. Political change is off-limits. After all, Bashar al-Assad opened Syria’s economy, while repressing the “Damascus Spring” opposition gatherings at the behest of his family.

Some have criticised standing against Obama’s engagement with Castro, claiming that isolating an impoverished Cuba is hardly the solution. I agree. However I don’t adhere to this black and white world view; we don’t have to deal in such absolutes. There’s engagement (for example, putting pressure on the regime by quietly encouraging trade, investing in infrastructure programs and encouraging internet access) and there’s staging ostentatious visits of questionable value, and legitimising dictators in front of the cameras. The latter is anything but productive.

Obama’s newest guest this month will be Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, who will be attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington within days. Aliyev inherited the position from his father Heydar, a former KGB member who led Soviet Azerbaijan on behalf of Leonid Bezhnev, suppressing opposition with assistance from the Azeri mafia. Aliyev passed the baton to his son before dying in 2003.

Leaked US diplomatic cables showing that US officials are well aware of the repressive conditions in Azerbaijan (even comparing Aliyev to the fictional “Godfather” who led the fictional Italian-American Corleones crime family). But this hasn’t stopped Obama from praising Azerbaijan’s “young democracy” (in which the results of the elections are decided before the election itself) as far back as 2010, while claiming to be concerned for detained opposition figures.

The courtship of Aliyev’s government clearly goes back some years. That same year, Obama met Aliyev in person at the UN General Assembly. The two posed for photograph, all smiles as they shook hands. Obama claims to have approached Aliyev about human rights issues, but also took the time to “expressed his appreciation” for Azeri support in Afghanistan, despite delivering an impassioned speech about human rights to the assembly the previous day.

Months before their meeting took place, Defence Secretary Robert Gates went to Baku to confer with Aliyev in June. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in July, carrying a letter from Obama in which he thanks Aliyev for military contributions in Afghanistan. “It is my hope that we will be able to broaden and deepen our relationship in the months and years ahead”, the letter declared.

Aliyev dutifully freed some 148 prisoners (including 12 activists) on March 17 of this year, in an attempt to clean up his image prior to his visit to Washington. However they can be arbitrarily arrested again at any time, and many complain of appalling treatment in police custody. Prominent opposition journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov recently had his six year sentence commuted to a five year suspended sentence, after being charged with spying for Armenia after criticising the regime. Journalist Khadija Ismaylova and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev are still languishing in jail.

Released opposition figure Leyla Yunus was recently obliged to go in front of the cameras and thank Aliyev for having “liberated” her from the captivity he placed her in. ““Good news from Azerbaijan on human rights”, tweeted the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, after word of the release of the prisoners. Obama sent a letter to Aliyev in on 5 December, thanking him for his “steadfast support” of the nuclear security program.

In fact it’s rumoured that Mr Aliyev is running short of cash (normally used to buy off critics) due to low oil prices, and is desperate to find some sort of substitute. Pretending to listen attentively to his critics may be part of his new approach. It’s doubtful that he will force his teenage son to sell his nine waterfront mansions in Dubai.

Obama’s final days in office seem to be spent actively trying to bring leaders with horrendous human rights records in from the cold. Despite his claims to be focused on human rights, Obama seems to have placed his mind in the future, being overly preoccupied by attempting to make legacy-defining trips and decisions as opposed to improving anyone’s quality of life by living in the present.

 

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