- - Sunday, April 24, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s an old Russian proverb that if you spit in the face of a weakling he will give thanks for the rain. This should be a Cuban proverb, to describe Barack Obama’s not such an excellent adventure to Havana. Raul Castro, the Cuban president, did everything short of expectoration to make the American president grovel for the regime’s affections.

The irony, obvious to everyone, is that the Castro brothers and their regime are on the ropes. Bankruptcy is too kind a word for the Cuban economy. The iconic sugar industry is all but destroyed, with abandoned cropland, rusting refineries and clumsy marketing. The final affront to the economy was the collapse of the economy of Hugo Chavez’ heirs in Venezuela. With some of the largest oil reserves in the world, the Venezuelans are unable to meet their own domestic energy needs, and continued to hand out oil like lollipops to leftist regimes in Latin America. That has come to a screeching naught.

Despite petty but studied insults from Raul Castro on his recent state visit, President Obama pretended that he had “transformed” misbegotten American policy toward Havana. The Cuban president not only did not meet him at the airport, a traditional normal courtesy for an arriving chief of state, but crudely grabbed Mr. Obama’s arm to show him how to wave to the cheering crowd assembled by state security. Setting up formal diplomatic relations with Havana on Cuban terms, in both numbers and approved personnel, is nevertheless presented as a great triumph of Obama strategy, a bounty for impatient American businessmen.

Like a pied piper of old, Mr. Obama dragged along with him on his adventure not only the usual suspects of the left, but some of the businessmen with a lust for pesos. Cuba was said to be ready to embrace American capitalism with eager arms. There would be a blossoming of the Cuban small-business entrepreneurial spirit to attract enthusiastic foreign investors and traders.

Business interests that have prospered on subsidies clambered for the American congressional embargo on Cuba to be lifted. The precedents for that are not promising. The Canadians and the Europeans who have tried assiduously to do business in the Castros’ Cuba for 50 years have little to show for it but fat loans going into default.

The auguries have been no better since. At the end of a four-day session of the Cuban Communist Party, just ended, hopes for new, younger faces have been squashed. Ramond Marcha Ventura, an octogenarian hard-liner brutally tough despite his years, was re-elected to the top party post, deputy to Raul Castro. There had been speculation that he would be replaced as concession to a new age. President Castro did make a half-hearted nod to term limits and an age ceiling of 70 for senior party leaders. He criticized the slow pace of economic reform, such as allowing small private businesses, but he said that five years ago. Nothing has changed. “I will be 90 years old soon,” Fidel told them. “But the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain.”

Whether Cuba will now drift into a more traditional Latin American “caudillo” regime is the crucial question. Mr. Obama’s attempt to intervene — he busied himself last week in London lecturing the British to vote against leaving the European Union — was not, to put a fine point on it, a smash hit sensation. President Castro has spent the last month denouncing it.

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