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A Humiliating Grip-And-Grin

I agree with President Obama when he says that after 55 years, it is clear that the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has not worked to restore freedom to the island.

I agree, too, that it makes little sense to ban trade with Cuba while allowing it with regimes such as China or Vietnam. As I wrote when Obama first announced he would open diplomatic relations with Havana a little over a year ago, dropping the embargo would free us to consider a variety of strategies that stand a better chance of promoting change.

Yet even so, I have more respect for myself, my country and the Cuban people than to flout the existing rules. Sure, I could go sightseeing in Havana by claiming my trip’s purpose was journalistic, educational or cultural. But that would just be winking at the sanctions Congress has imposed, which still prohibit Americans from joining our sun-seeking Canadian and European friends in becoming a source of hard currency for the island.

The president, however, is not similarly burdened. His recent trip to Cuba marked the first time a U.S. president has visited the island in 88 years. Determined, as usual, to work around Congress and to create what he thinks will be a lasting historical legacy, Obama allowed Raul Castro to make him – and by extension, the United States – look like a buffoon.

The idiotic grip-and-grin pose with Cuba’s nepotistic dictator was bad enough. But Obama had to stand by when, at a joint press conference, Castro challenged a journalist to provide the names of any political prisoners on the island. Castro was visibly uncomfortable even before hearing the unscripted question, a rare occurrence given his country’s state-controlled media; when CNN correspondent Jim Acosta asked why Castro’s regime continues to hold political prisoners, the Cuban president flatly denied doing so and laughably claimed he would release any such prisoners immediately if a list of names was provided.

Obama’s aides had all the necessary names close at hand, to be sure; in fact, the president himself later acknowledged that the administration has given Havana such a list in the past. If Castro’s government had somehow misplaced it, a phalanx of human rights organizations and more than a few journalists were ready and willing to supply their own compilations.

Of course, nobody on any of those lists was released. Cuba continues to maintain that all its prisoners are common criminals.

Castro was not really seeking information. He was seeking dominance, and he got it. The president of the United States stood by, powerless, as Cuba’s triumphant strongman baldly lied to the world and demanded an end to the remaining U.S. sanctions that Obama has not found it within his unilateral power to cancel. The moment was much more deeply humiliating than the awkward photo opportunity that ended the press conference, though it made for less pithy tweeting.

To top it off, the next day found Europe wracked by yet another terror attack, springing in part from the territory vacated by U.S. troops at Obama’s direction. Another legacy project gone more than slightly awry.

Obama is right that the sanctions against Cuba have not achieved their objective. Since the United States is a democracy, a political discussion involving all the interested parties is the way to figure out the next steps that make sense for our country, as well as for the long-suffering Cubans. In the meantime, Obama’s energy could be much better spent in Washington, dealing with the burdens that are the price of the office he holds. Instead he is enjoying a glorified vacation with his family to an oppressed island nation that I would not now visit, purely on principle.

Obama’s Cuban tour is a sightseeing trip, as well as an ego trip for the legacy-minded president. Karma being what it is, it was also disgraceful in ways that I suspect the president himself is unable to grasp.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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