Obama and Castro: Sparring Over Human Rights

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I've just returned from Cuba, where the revolution is still going strong, though thanks to the U.S. trade embargo the country itself is more than a bit tattered around the edges. Images of Fidel are everywhere -- fences, building facades, barroom walls -- you name it. Posters touting "52 years of the Revolution" are plentiful. Che Guevara is a god -- memorialized in a giant open-air complex in central Cuba (where the decisive battle of the revolution was won) along with a museum and an eternal flame to mark his remains.

Likenesses of Raul Castro -- Fidel's brother who fought beside him to take Cuba in 1959 and who now serves as president -- are considerably less in evidence. He may not be on the walls, but he has been much in the news lately, sparring with President Obama over human rights abuses. Both leaders claim the other is jailing political prisoners unjustly.

On the Cuban side, there is the case of the "Cuban Five." In the late 1990s, five men infiltrated Cuban-American exile organizations that opposed the Castro government, including an activist group called Brothers to the Rescue, which regularly made unauthorized flights over Cuba to drop leaflets. The Five are jailed in the U.S. on charges ranging from spying to acting as unregistered foreign agents and conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States. In Cuba they are seen as political prisoners and martyrs. Their pictures are every bit as numerous as those of Fidel, and are clearly being used to keep the spirit of revolution and the cause of Cuban justice -- as the Castro government sees it -- alive.

Castro and company are not the only ones who think these guys were unjustly accused and got a bad deal in the U.S. courts. A three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court (later overruled) threw out sentences for three of them, finding the punishment too harsh because the government had never proved that they had traded in ''top secret'' intelligence. Robert A. Pastor, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser for Latin America, put it this way in the New York Times: ''Holding a trial for five Cuban intelligence agents in Miami is about as fair as a trial for an Israeli intelligence agent in Tehran. You'd need a lot more than a good lawyer to be taken seriously.''

My delegation, sponsored by the U.S. Women & Cuba Collaboration, which hopes to not only end the U.S. trade embargo but get the Five pardoned, met with the mothers and wives of the men. The women make appearances around the country, publicizing the fact that they have been denied visas for visitation in the U.S. jails where their loved ones are held, and campaigning for their release. Their pleas are heartfelt but seemingly hopeless, as the years slip away and nothing changes.

Across the Florida straits, President Obama recently denounced the Castro government for human rights abuses in the wake of the death of a jailed hunger striker and reported government crackdowns on political protest. Using his harshest words to date, the President accused Cuba of a "clenched fist" policy toward "the aspirations of the Cuban people."

All of this is to say that the honeymoon is over between Presidents Obama and Castro. Right after he was elected, Obama pledged to improve relations with Cuba, and eased some travel restrictions for families. And only a year ago Raul said "We have sent word to the US government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything." No longer.

While the drama is playing out over very real human rights questions on both sides, nobody is mentioning the fact that the next election is always on Washington minds. Florida, where a militantly anti-Castro Cuban element has held political sway since they fled their country in 1959, always looms large. No president is going to aggravate them too much -- particularly when Cuba's human rights record remains dubious at best and dismal in the eyes of many. (Conversely, the feeling in Cuba is that the "Florida Mafia" as these ex-pats are called, is not interested in human rights. They just want their estates and mega-business properties back to pursue the pre-revolution holy grail of capitalism by exploiting Cuban people and lands.)

Regardless of which side you come down on, at least for now, we seem destined to continued the 50-plus year dance of mutual animosity between the two countries. The U.S. trade embargo will continue. The war of words will not abate.

And the families of prisoners on both sides must wait.