If many American conservatives were already agitated and colicky about President Obama’s trip to Cuba, a photo op in Havana Monday pushed them into full-on apoplexy.
Obama went to visit a memorial to national hero Jose Martí, and was then photographed standing in front of a huge mural of Che Guevara, the leftist guerrilla who along with Fidel Castro was a leader of Cuba’s Communist revolution. The reaction was harsh. (The liberal site Talking Points Memo gathers a good sampling.) The Drudge Report went with subtle innuendo and a funny callback to the Bush administration: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” One writer tweeted, “Finally, our POTUS is able to honor the mural of a racist, terrorist, mass murderer who oversaw concentration camps.” Jay Nordlinger fumed, “In Cuba, the Castros’ island prison, the American president has been photographed with looks of delight on his face in front of a Dear Leader-ish image of Guevara.” (He doesn’t look all that happy to me, but your mileage may vary.)
One of the more interesting reactions came from former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich:
Obama's standing in front of Che Guevara giant mural deliberate endorsement of Communist revolutionary or bad staffing?I bet deliberate .— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) March 21, 2016
Was it bad advance work by presidential staff? Perhaps, though this being Cuba, it might be difficult to avoid being photographed with icons of Marxist repression—starting with President Raul Castro, with whom Obama gave a brief shared press conference on Monday. As Peter Ubertaccio wryly noted on Twitter, Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were also photographed with portraits of iconic brutal Communists:
We simply cannot have a US President appear in a Communist country in front of image of a murderous revolutionary pic.twitter.com/0EojdnVRMG— Peter Ubertaccio (@ProfessorU) March 21, 2016
In other words, getting your photo taken with monsters of the 20th century is an occupational hazard of diplomacy. Perhaps that’s reason enough not to go. There is a good-faith critique from some observers, especially on the right, who contend that no American president should go to Cuba while the Castros retrain power. They worry that visiting, shaking hands, and being photographed this way ratifies the regime. A crackdown on dissidents on the eve of the trip shows how, despite some reforms, the Cuban government remains unacceptably repressive. (The fact that Castro was asked about political prisoners by CNN’s Jim Acosta, and his puerile denial, show how the trip might positively affect that.) Although a majority of Americans now oppose the embargo, one can mount a case for why Cuba ought to remain isolated and why visiting Cuba at all (setting aside the photo) is unwise.