The Insufferable Vanity Behind Obama's Trip to Cuba

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A woman wears trousers with the colors of the U.S. flag in Havana on February 18. President Barack Obama will meet dissidents and President Raul Castro there next month, in a historic trip that will be another major step toward ending decades of animosity between the former Cold War foes. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Eight months after the U.S. Embassy opened in Cuba, what is the effect of this much-celebrated opening of diplomatic relations? Who has benefited?

The Washington Post noted on February 18 that "there has been little movement on political freedoms…and the number of dissidents in detention has steadily increased in recent months."

In fact, there has been no progress on freedom whatsoever. So far, the real effect of Barack Obama's "opening" is an increase in the flow of funds to the Castro regime through tourism and business with state-owned companies.

But the White House says Obama will visit Cuba in March. Why is the president visiting, given the lack of change? Because he cannot resist the photo op with Fidel Castro. It's as simple as that.

What about human rights? The Post tells us that "in recent weeks, administration officials have made it clear Obama would travel to Cuba only if its government made additional concessions in the areas of human rights, Internet access and market liberalization."

The president has said that "if I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody. I've made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba."

What does that mean? Will the president meet with the brave Ladies in White who have fought for freedom for years? Which courageous dissidents will he see? What does it mean to "reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression," to quote the president's inartful words.

Not too hard to guess: a tame group of civil society types, some artists who have galleries catering to American tourists, some people who want the right to open new restaurants.

The Cuban regime will never allow Obama to meet with "everybody," and they will get away with it. They know that Obama is dying to make this trip and get his photo with Fidel, and that gives the police state the upper hand—just as it did throughout the Obama negotiations with Cuba.

Yes, the trip could be salvaged—if Obama had a "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" moment. Yes, if he directly demanded free elections, and an end to the one-party rule, and free expression, and free trade unions, and demanded that every single political prisoner be released immediately.

This visit is about the president's vanity and search for a legacy, not about freedom and human rights for the people of Cuba. And that's a disgrace.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Insufferable Vanity Behind Obama's Trip to Cuba | Opinion