Obama’s judo move actually weakens Cuba’s Castro brothers

Barack Obama walked the cobblestone streets of Old Havana to cheers of “Welcome to Cuba!” After decades of official hostility between the United States and Cuba, Obama has successfully nudged the two toward normal relations.

After decades of craziness, it’s heartening to see smart policy regarding Cuba. So Cuba remains a repressive country run by a dictator. We do business with those kinds of places all the time. And nothing is going to change Cuba faster than a surge of American visitors and investors.

America’s long-running, robotic animus toward a country with a Castro in charge is not only an emotional response. It’s ineffectual, as well. The trade embargo has impoverished the Cuban people, cut off a foreign market for American businesses and sent disorderly boatloads of people packing for the United States.

And the meaner America has been the more the Castro brothers could justify their police-state crackdowns. They needed us to play the villain in their fairy tale.

Obama only frustrates them. By ditching the “with us or agin us” approach to foreign affairs, he actually weakens our would-be adversaries. It is a judo move that turns our foes’ dead weight against them, making our rivals lose their balance.

Our political blowhards don’t get this at all. They call Obama a wimp when he quietly sits through anti-American protests in Latin America. But as Obama explained to The Atlantic, ignoring the ranters helps “right-size” such egotists as Venezuela’s late strongman, Hugo Chavez — “rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary.”

Raul Castro did not greet Obama at the airport, not so much out of hostility as out of fear that he’d seem small next to the American president getting the love from his people. Granma, Cuba’s official Communist Party news service, predictably warned Obama not to expect Cuba to “abandon its revolutionary ideals” with a warming of relations. That’s nice.

Cubans who have trouble finding even potatoes in their stores know that elsewhere in the Caribbean, potatoes weigh down Costco warehouse shelves. Small wonder Castro fears overly warm outbursts of friendship.

Thanks to the thaw, Google has apparently signed a deal with Cuba to revolutionize the island’s lousy broadband and Wi-Fi access. Imagine the flow of information then.

Back in our more bellicose political quarters, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is vowing to continue blocking a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Castro needs Rubio as much as Rubio needs Castro. For what useful purpose has become increasingly unclear.

Many remember the bizarre case of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy caught in an epic custody battle some 16 years ago. Elian’s mother had drowned while trying to bring her 5-year-old onto the shores of Florida. Elian’s father in Cuba wanted his son sent back, but the Miami relatives insisted the boy stay with them.

The case for keeping Elian here was that America was a better place to live than the Communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Fortunately, U.S. family law prevailed: A man didn’t lose the rights to his son because he was a Cuban wanting to live in Cuba.

Now a handsome man of 22, Elian Gonzalez says he’d like to come back to the United States — but only to visit as a tourist. What a fine ending to this story.

Perhaps the most perceptive take of Obama’s visit to Cuba came from Carmen Diaz, a 70-year-old resident of Havana. “I feel this visit of an American president to Cuba is being done in the most elegant way possible,” Diaz told The New York Times, “from his initial campaign to now inspiring a new era of relations with Cuba.”

Our elegant president has done us proud.

Email Froma Harrop at fharrop@gmail.com.

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