When Raúl Castro somberly informed the Cuban people in a nationwide broadcast last month about the opening of full diplomatic relations with the United States, he made it clear that his regime was not undergoing drastic changes.

In a message designed to reassure nervous members of the Communist Party’s rank and file that they had nothing to worry about, he insisted that the shift came “without renouncing a single one of our principles.”

For those desiring real change for Cuba — a genuine opening and a relaxation of the harsh controls on the activities of ordinary Cubans — this sounded ominous. As indeed it has proved to be.

Last week, a few courageous Cubans decided to test the intentions of the regime by attempting to carry out an “open mic” performance in Havana’s Revolution Square. Led by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who splits her time between Havana and the United States, the plan was to ask citizens to speak about their visions for the country.

It was plainly a basic act of self-expression, the sort of thing that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow elsewhere — but is disallowed in police states like Cuba.

The plan never got off the ground. Bruguera and some 50 like-minded Cubans were arrested before the event could take place. Some, like journalist Reinaldo Escobar, husband of prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, were stopped by state security before they could leave their homes.

Two days later, Bruguera was arrested (again) along with several other dissidents after they went to a jail demanding the release of government opponents rounded up in the earlier crackdown.

Critics of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba were quick to declare that the government’s heavy-handed response to the planned event shows the futility of the White House decision. Nothing has changed in Cuba, they declared. Obama should have secured a “guarantee” of free speech before making the opening to Cuba instead of giving the Cubans something for nothing — i.e., diplomatic recognition without some reciprocal promise of better behavior.

In the first place, seeking such an exchange would have been a non-starter. Cuba’s rulers would never make a deal that requires changes in domestic policy — particularly the police state tactics that ensure the regime’s survival — in return for diplomatic recognition.

Second, the crackdown would have taken place regardless of any foregoing action by the United States. Such crackdowns occur with disgusting regularity, regardless of what other nations say. (Shamefully, most don’t say anything, except for the U.S. State Department. Why do other democratic nations in the region find it so hard to call out the Cuban government for human rights violations?)

Third, did anyone believe that diplomatic recognition would change the Cuban state’s behavior overnight? This is a regime that knows no other way short of brute force — intimidation, arrests, imprisonment, “acts of repudiation” and so forth — to enforce its will when it faces a challenge from within. That’s not going to change from one day to the next.

The gamble made by Obama, as we called it at the time, is that diplomatic engagement would, over time, prove more effective in bringing change to Cuba than the tactic of isolation, which plainly hasn’t worked. It’s far too early to call it a failed experiment, but clearly Cuba failed its first test.

Editorial by the Miami Herald

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