- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Critics of President Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Cuba are claiming vindication this week as the island nation’s Communist Party hard-liners — cheered on by an 89-year-old Fidel Castro — moved to cement their grip on power after Mr. Castro’s brother Raul steps down in two years.

“The administration can downplay this all it wants, but by every indicator, in terms of progress, this was a sign of failure,” said Ana Quintana, a Latin America and Western Hemisphere policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation. “All of these moves that the administration has made over the past two years — from opening an embassy in Havana to prematurely taking the Cubans off the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list — have only served to embolden the Cuban government.”

Many Cubans expressed dismay at the news that Raul Castro, 84, would stay in the critical post of Communist Party first secretary after stepping down as president in 2018 and that Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who fought alongside the Castro brothers in the 1959 revolution and is considered an old-line enforcer of party orthodoxy, will retain his post as the party’s second-in-command.

The reappointments were made at the party’s congress, a gathering that happens once every five years in what remains a one-party state.

“I would have liked younger people with fresh minds,” Luis Lai, a 31-year-old printing company worker in Havana, told The Associated Press. “The same party, but able to articulate ideas of people of my generation. Older people should retire.”

Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said Mr. Obama’s “patience” may pay off over time in a move to greater political freedoms and civil liberties in Cuba.

He noted that “pressing for concessions hasn’t worked very well with Cubans in the past” but acknowledged that progress has been hard to see so far.

“No one thought this detente would move quickly, but it’s taking more time than expected,” he said. “I’m sure the Obama administration would have loved to have seen much more progress at the congress and reforms move forward, but this is the nature of the system in Cuba.”

“Frankly,” he said, “I think once Fidel dies — should that ever happen — the process will accelerate considerably.”

Obama administration officials Wednesday insisted that they had no illusions that political liberalization in Havana would be anything other than a long-term project.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the administration “didn’t have any set expectations” that the Communist Party gathering, just weeks after President Obama’s milestone visit to the island, would produce major political reforms.

The opening to Cuba has “never been about some sort of forcible regime change,” Mr. Kirby said. “There were no expectations that there was going to be an overnight change in the way the island is governed. There has never been that expectation.”

He added, however, that the administration’s long-held hope is that “the Cuban people be able to decide their future and make choices for themselves — and we recognize the difficulties that they face right now in terms of that sort of future.”

But Heritage’s Ms. Quintana said the regime in Havana is stiffening its resolve “against the very stated purpose of Obama’s new policy, which is to see a democratic transition in Cuba and some respect for human rights by the government there.”

Fidel makes an appearance

Adding to the unpleasant symbolism of this week’s events, Fidel Castro, who held power for nearly five decades before ill health led him to give way for his brother, played a personal role in this week’s developments.

In his most extensive public appearance in years, Mr. Castro told the congress in a valedictory speech to continue fighting for their communist ideals as he nears the end of his life.

“The time will come for all of us,” Mr. Castro said. “But the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without a truce to obtain them.”

Mr. Machado, 85, is seen as one of the regime’s leading hard-liners on Communist Party doctrine and has been a staunch opponent of market-oriented reforms that Raul Castro and some of the government’s younger ministers have tested in the past.

“If anyone embodies the most antiquated orthodoxy of the Cuban political system, it is undoubtedly Jose Ramon Machado Ventura,” said a profile last fall by Yoani Sanchez, president of 14ymedio.com, which bills itself as Cuba’s first independent digital news outlet.

The Communist Party congress did elect five younger people, including three women, to the powerful 17-member Political Bureau, but the overall result left many Cubans hoping for bolder moves disappointed.

In the years leading up to Mr. Obama’s December 2014 outreach to Cuba, a number of moves were made to ease the rigid state-dominated economy that the Castro brothers had overseen for a half-century.

The regime in 2011 announced that private property would be legalized and that Cuban citizens would, for the first time in decades, be allowed to buy and sell their homes. But subsequent openings to private enterprise have largely failed to get off the ground, and party leaders continue to describe capitalism as a threat — even as Havana seems incapable of increasing productivity in its corruption-plagued networks of state-run enterprises.

What’s worse, critics say, is that the Castro government’s treatment of human rights and democracy activists has grown only more harsh as the nation has begun restoring relations with Washington. One of the fiercest crackdowns came as Mr. Obama and his family traveled to Cuba last month — the first visit in 90 years by a U.S. leader.

Ms. Quintana claimed Wednesday that Cuban authorities arrested 498 activists during the three days that Mr. Obama was on the island.

The Communist Party, she argued, “no longer has an impetus to change because the U.S. has lost its leverage of Cuba by making concessions and pursuing a policy of appeasement over the past two years.”

Some, however, believe Washington does still hold one key bit of leverage — the continuing U.S. embargo on most direct trade with Cuba.

Congressional insiders say Republicans controlling both houses of Congress simply won’t accept an end to the embargo without clear evidence that the government in Havana has taken serious steps to improve its record on human rights.

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