It was nine years ago (December 17, 2014) that President Barack Obama chose to establish formal relations with the Communist dictatorship in Cuba, claiming the step was aimed at improving the lives of the subjugated Cuban people. “The United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous,” Obama promised.
Instead of worrying that Obama was handing a much-needed and undeserved lifeline to the decades-long Castro dictatorship, the liberal media applauded the “historic” decision. “A momentous day,” NBC’s Brian Williams proclaimed in a noontime special report. “Something tumbled down that has been in place for half a century.”
“Tonight, a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy,” fill-in host Norah O’Donnell echoed on the CBS Evening News that night, while over on ABC, anchor David Muir gushed that it was an “historic day.”
Pundits acted as if communism was being dismantled in Cuba, rather than being propped up by a now-friendly U.S. administration. “More than 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, this feels like the last brick to disappear from the relic of the Cold War wall,” NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted that afternoon.
On his MSNBC show that evening, a clueless Ed Schultz compared Obama to the staunchly anti-communist Ronald Reagan: “Isn’t this Barack Obama’s ‘tear down this wall, Mr. Castro’ — that kind of a moment? I mean, if change can take place with the Soviet Union, why can’t it take place with the Cuban people here?”
On Hardball that same night, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson tried to argue that Cuban government were the ultimate losers in the deal. “I’m very optimistic today because I think this is a win for the Cuban people. I don’t think it’s a win for the Cuban government,” Robinson told host Chris Matthews.
Confronting Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the next day, substitute host Donny Deutsch weirdly suggested that Cubans were being “liberated” just because Obama was willing to make a deal with their communist masters. “Congressman, to sit and just look at the last 50 years and continue as is has been nothing but a failure, vs. taking a step to open the door to the future, to liberating 11 million Cubans, to bringing them into the 21st century....Aren’t you just giving us the typical Republican ‘I have to say this.’”
Journalists pitched the public on the idea that they’d soon be able to visit Cuba as easily as Canada. “Just how big of a deal is this?” ABC’s Jim Avila asked on the December 18 Good Morning America. “Well, soon many more Americans will be able to hop a plane to Havana, take a tour, even legally buy one of those famous cigars.”
The media were concerned that rich Americans would somehow “ruin” the “charm” of an island held back by decades of communist mismanagement. “You know the fear among anybody who’s ever been there, or who cares at all about the Cuban people, as so many of us do — the last thing they need is a Taco Bell and a Lowe’s,” then-Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith fretted on December 17. “You wonder, are we about to get up in there and ruin that place?”
“The rest of us are all going to be rushing to get to Cuba before it turns into Miami Beach, while it’s still that unspoiled, seemingly, place, with the classic cars,” the Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift exclaimed on that weekend’s McLaughlin Group. “People want to see Cuba as it is, before it becomes more developed.”
On the December 17 Nightly News, NBC correspondent Mark Potter admitted Cuba was an economic wreck, but blamed the U.S. embargo, not communism. “Havana, known for its charm and vintage cars, is on life support, its economy crippled by the long-standing U.S. embargo. People here now hope that will change.”
It wasn’t all pro-Obama happy talk. The December 18 Washington Post editorialized that Obama’s decision to normalize relations was “naive” and “an undeserved bailout” and “new lease on life” to “a 50-year-old failed regime.”
But the prevailing media narrative was praise for Obama, anchored by the untested belief that formal relations would lead to improvements in everyday life on the island. When the President stepped foot on Cuba in March 2016, the media once again went gaga. “Few Americans thought they would live to see this day. An American President meeting with a Communist president named Castro in Havana,” CBS’s Scott Pelley hyped on the March 21 Evening News.
“In American history,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow cheered that night, “[we] know that President Barack Obama will be forever the American leader who got done what every other Democrat since Jack Kennedy tried and failed to do. He got it done.”
But what, exactly, did Obama “get done”? Nine years later, Fidel Castro is dead and his brother Raul is retired, but communist rule has merely been passed to another generation of tyrants. There’s no suggestion free elections are on the horizon, and Cuba’s government continues to abuse its citizens.
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023, “The government continued to employ arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, political opponents, and others....Cubans who criticize the government risk prosecution. They are not guaranteed due process or a fair trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal.”
So for all of Obama’s media-cheered “history,” things haven’t really changed in the island prison called Cuba.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.