Obama Confounds Critics and Surprises Raul Castro with His Strong Defense of Democracy in Communist Cuba

As a critic of President Obama’s opening to Cuba, last week I wrote that “Obama is a man who just can’t say no to tyrants.” Obama’s project has had many other critics. Rich Lowry points out in National Review that Obama’s trip “means extending credibility and a financial lifeline to a Castro regime that has no intention of reforming.”

Walter Russell Mead argues in The American Interest that Obama’s trip to Cuba is taking place for one reason alone: The Castro brothers know that socialism has failed, and the only way to prevent a total collapse of their regime is to make peace with the once hated “Yankee oppressor.” Once Cuba was propped up by the Soviet Union, and later by Venezuela, but that era is over. In agreeing to this opening with America, the Castro brothers hope for their regime’s survival, but Mead believes that  integration with the U.S. economy will eventually lead to the collapse of their rule.

It is in this context that one must evaluate Obama’s historic speech to the Cuban people, given Tuesday morning. The speech Obama delivered deviated from the text of his speech that had been handed out to the press beforehand. That is possibly why Raul Castro sat listening stone-faced in the first balcony facing the stage. Had he seen in advance what Obama would be saying, he might have cancelled the live television feed throughout Cuba.

Obama began by saying that he had come to Cuba “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas … to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” He began with soft homilies -- how the U.S. and Cuba share “common values, “a sense of patriotism and a sense of pride … a profound love of family. A passion for our children.”

These are, of course, things that all people share, and say little about the real differences between the U.S. and the Castro regime. But Castro must have been shocked when Obama praised those Cubans who had fled to America on planes and makeshift rafts “in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, sometimes leaving behind everything they owned and every person that they loved.” (Castro’s term for such people are “gusanos” or worms.)

Later in the speech he delivered another surprise, praising the initiative and work ethic of the Cuban people. He was not referring to the Communist regime. Instead, Obama said, there is a “clear monument to what the Cuban people can build … [and it] is called Miami.” Eluding to Cuba’s dismal economy, Obama said: “American democracy has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living.”

Obama said that real differences between the two countries could not be ignored:

Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy. Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market. Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.

He repeated that while he favored lifting the embargo and has recommended that Congress do this, even if the embargo was lifted “Cubans will not realize their potential without continued change in Cuba.” That meant access to information available online, which now Cubans are not permitted to get. “If you cannot be exposed to different points of view,” Obama told the Cubans, “you will not reach your full potential, and over time the youth will lose all hope.”

Of course, this is already the case, as virtually all reporters note. That is the very reason more Cubans are fleeing by raft and by airplane and by foot after taking allowed trips to Central America. The past year alone has seen a great exodus of Cubans fearful that Obama’s new opening to Cuba might in fact lead the U.S. to change its favorable immigration policies towards Cuban immigrants.

Addressing critics who say that Cubans will not benefit from American investment, he acknowledged that when Cuban workers in foreign projects and hotels get paid their wages go to the state, which then gives the workers their salary in useless pesos. A worker, Obama said, “should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba. Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn.”

It was unprecedented, the NewYork Times observed, that Obama “made a passionate argument for democracy and free-market principles.” He affirmed his own belief in the right to protest, to practice freedom of religion, and emphasized the necessity of free and democratic elections. To make this palatable to Castro without completely embarrassing him, the president added that the United States did not want to “impose our political or economic system on you.” Regime change, in other words, is no longer the objective of the United States. And change, if it comes, Obama argued, “will depend on the Cuban people,” not on the United State imposing its system on Cuba.

Obama acknowledged that the U.S. still has “enormous problems. … But democracy is the way we solve them.” He discussed the long, hard-fought struggle for civil rights and how positive changes had been made over time through the democratic process. Pointing to himself, he said that when he was growing up it would have been inconceivable that a mixed race son, raised by a single mother, would one day be president of the United States.

So how does one evaluate the mixed messages he was giving?