- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2016

On Monday, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to end the U.S.-Cuba deal unless Havana makes a better one.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

What a welcome policy change.

Last year, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with the Cuban dictatorship, and chipped away at some economic sanctions, including allowing U.S. companies to invest in some small businesses and ship materials to Cuban companies.

The soft-power move was intended to help the Cuban people who have suffered under the late Fidel Castro’s dictatorial regime — and to perhaps help sway the communist country on more democratic path.

Yet, the regime offered nothing in return.

The same year the U.S. set up an embassy in Havana, Cuba carried out more than 8,600 detentions of political activists, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN). There was an acceleration of detentions before Mr. Obama’s 2016 official visit.

President Raul Castro — Mr. Castro’s brother who has been in power since 2006 — still owns the country’s media and Internet access, and that remains very limited. According to Amnesty International, only 25 percent of the Cuban population is able to get online and only 5 percent of homes have internet access, with it being one of the most unconnected countries in the Americas.

The Cuban Constitution recognizes freedom of the press but expressly prohibits private ownership of the mass media. Although some independent bloggers have emerged, they largely get harassed and are limited in what they can report. On International Human Rights Day in 2015, journalists were prevented from reporting on a human rights protest, and according to one journalist state security agents blocked the door to the building they worked in and told him: “Today you’re not going out,” Amnesty International reported.

Furthermore, there seems to be no willingness from the regime to change.

In a meeting of the Communist Party in April, Mr. Castro called American democracy “a sham,” and defended the regime. He derided the idea of property rights, or that a restoration of relations with the U.S. would lead to a more capitalistic way of thinking. Free and fair elections remain a distant dream.

Some Cuban pro-democracy advocates believe Mr. Obama’s thawing of relations with the state have actually emboldened and legitimized its tyrannical leadership.

“In general the repression is increasing,” activist Antonio Rodiles told the Guardian in August of the Cuban government. “The regime is more violent, more comfortable. People care more about economics than promoting human rights in Cuba.”

This summer, former Florida Gov. and GOP presidential nominee Jeb Bush co-wrote an article in the National Review about why U.S.-Cuban policy needs to be tougher, to ensure the Cuban people actual reform.

In it, he argued: “It will be incumbent on the next administration to work with Congress — not subvert it through the abuse of executive authority — to promote policies that will advance the cause of basic human rights for all in Cuba, including the release of political prisoners, fair and free elections, respect for the rule of law, the resolution of U.S. confiscated-property claims, and the embrace of a free-market economy. Until these conditions exist, we should not reward the Castro dictatorship by ending the embargo.”

In October, Mr. Obama used his pen to lift restrictions on Cuba’s rum and cigars, and make it easier for U.S. companies to import Cuban-made pharmaceuticals and U.S. agriculture companies to sell their products to the island — without gaining human-rights concessions in return.

Mr. Trump is right — and now it’s his time — to strike a better deal with Cuba on behalf of the Cuban people, and not to reward and legitimatize a dictatorial, brutal, human-rights violating regime.

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