Daniel Altman Headshot

Why Despots Hate Barack Obama

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Less than two weeks into President Obama's term, Fidel Castro has already gone on the attack. Castro, who once spoke favorably of Obama, condemned him this week for refusing to unconditionally return the Guantanamo Bay military base to Cuba and for, in Castro's view, supporting the killing of Palestinians by Israel. Why the about-face?

Obama may have the most progressive attitude towards Cuba of any president elected since Castro led the country's socialist revolution in 1959. During his electoral campaign, he said that he wanted to loosen restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island and sending money to their friends and relatives there. With Castro's health failing, some pundits have speculated that Obama could be the president who eventually lifts the Cuban trade embargo altogether, assuming Castro's death leads to an opening of the country's political system.

But none of that does Castro any good. The identity of the United States as Cuba's principal foe is indispensable for the Castro family's political power. Like North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and many other less-well-known antagonists, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul use the supposed oppressions of the United States to gin up nationalist sentiment at home, distracting their people from the more immediate problems of poverty, hunger, insecurity and lack of political freedom.

Disgracefully, George W. Bush's administration and its international exploits gave these leaders as much ammunition as they wanted. Barack Obama has already charted a different course, yet Castro and the others continue to assail him. The reason is simple; a gesture of friendship by the United States would hurt their political positions by taking away a convenient whipping boy, even if it might help their people.

Indeed, in the Castros' case, the lifting of the embargo could eventually mean the end of their political power. An unchecked stream of American tourists, American products, American media and American money would present a formidable challenge to the Castros' Cold War rhetoric. It would hardly be surprising, were the embargo to be lifted, if the Castros themselves acted to limit trade (while taking a percentage of the proceeds to augment their decidedly un-socialist riches).

Obama has hinted on several occasions that he wants to thaw relations between the United States and the countries with whom the Bush administration refused to have any direct contact. Sadly, the biggest obstacle to his efforts may be those same countries' despotic leaders, terrified of losing one of the few political assets they have: a reliable enemy.