But he did, and what he did there should guide President Obama as he prepares to visit to Cuba — the first visit by a sitting president since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 — on steps the president can take to usher in true freedom for the Cuban people.
There’s a difference, of course: In 1980, the Soviet Union and the United States had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at one another, and Americans feared a clash between superpowers. Reagan’s main mission was to prevent those weapons from being used. We don’t face such high stakes with Cuba, but Americans do believe that people everywhere deserve to be free, and that’s a message worth presenting wherever people lack freedom.
Reagan went to Moscow to negotiate an arms control agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He could have left it at that — few Americans would have noted an absence of ideological speechmaking during a diplomatic visit. But since his televised 1964 “A Time for Choosing” address on behalf of the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, and before, Reagan had been an evangelist for human rights and economic freedom as universal values, and he didn’t want to pass up the singular opportunity to talk about those values behind the Iron Curtain. He made the decision to strengthen Soviet dissidents and vigorously advocate for the American system of free enterprise and limited government against longstanding Soviet misrepresentations.
He stopped in Finland on his way to the USSR and told a crowd in Helsinki, “There is no true international security without respect for human rights. … The greatest creative and moral force in this new world, the greatest hope for survival and success, for peace and happiness, is human freedom.”
He asked “why Soviet citizens who wish to exercise their right to emigrate should be subject to artificial quotas and arbitrary rulings. And what are we to think of the continued suppression of those who wish to practice their religious beliefs?” Obama should ask the same in Cuba.
In Moscow, Reagan met with almost 100 dissidents — “human rights activists and Jewish refuseniks, veterans of labor camps and Siberian exile and the wives and children of some still imprisoned,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He told them: “I came here to give you strength, but it is you who have strengthened me. While we press for human lives through diplomatic channels, you press with your very lives, day in and day out, year after year, risking your homes, your jobs and your all.” He reminded them “it is the individual who is always the source of economic creativity.”
Obama likewise plans to meet with Cuban dissidents, and he should seek to give them similar hope.