Mary Anastasia O’Grady

This month marks the first anniversary of President Obama’s unilateral rapprochement with Cuba. Upon making the Dec. 17 announcement, the Obama administration immediately moved to ease restrictions on American travel to the island and, by extension, boost revenues for the owners of its tourist industry: the Cuban military.

In May the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the dictator Gen. Raúl Castro harbors known terrorists, including the U.S. fugitive Joanne Chesimard, once a member of the now defunct Black Liberation Army and a convicted cop-killer.

In August the U.S. reopened an embassy in Havana. Last week it announced a bilateral agreement to restore direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba.

Cuba’s dissidents have been hard hit. Days after the new U.S. policy was announced, Danilo Maldonado, the Cuban performance artist known as El Sexto, was arrested for mocking the Castros. He spent 10 months in jail, and Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience.

The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 7,686 political arrests in 2015 through Nov. 30. On that day Mr. Maldonado summarized the effects of the Obama détente: “There have been no positive changes. The U.S. has given away too much at the normalization talks, and that has let Cuba continue its repression.”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, echoes those sentiments. “I was particularly shocked,” he said last week, “that a number of people, including members of the Ladies in White,” a dissident group, “were arrested on Human Rights Day, on 10 December. This shows an extraordinary disdain for the importance of human rights on the part of the Cuban authorities.”

In 2014 Cuba passed a new foreign-investment law to boost capital inflows. Yet the government retained the power to confiscate assets for “public” or “social” ends, and it has gained a reputation for arbitrarily jailing foreign businessmen. Writing in the fall 2015 issue of World Affairs, José Azel, a senior scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, noted that despite the investment law’s “vaulting language, more than a year later only a handful of investments have been approved.”

Perhaps capitalists are not all that important when Russia is itching to get back into Cuba in a big way. In 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin forgave $32 billion in Cuban debt to the Soviet Union. Then he converted the remaining $3.5 billion due Moscow into a line of credit for energy and industrial projects on the island.

In return, among other things, the Kremlin gets to use Cuba to establish a station supporting Russia’s global navigation satellite system (Glonass), a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). In a Nov. 17 website post for the Cuban Transition Project at the University of Miami, research associate Hans de Salas-del Valle observed that “the installation of a signals facility in Cuba is part of a broader strategy to integrate Cuba into Russia’s space program.” He added that “Moscow has publicly expressed interest in establishing a satellite launch site in Cuba.”

Mr. Obama agrees with Raúl that the U.S. should lift the embargo. But Cuba can already buy food and medicine from the U.S. and, practically speaking, there are few limits on American travel, though such travel is disguised as “cultural exchange.” What’s left of the embargo is a ban on access to bank credit, and legal claims for almost $8 billion in property stolen by the revolution.

The Castros have a solution to the latter. They claim the embargo cost Cuba over $100 billion since 1959, so the U.S. actually owes them.

That’s laughable. What’s not so funny is Cuba’s credit score. Even after the Russian write-down, Havana is still in arrears to the rest of the world—ex-U.S.—on some $85 billion of debt. Countries are not lining up to lend more. The Castros need a new mark. That’s where Mr. Obama comes in.

Cuba’s economy, heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil and China aid, is unable to support the nation. According to Mr. de Salas-del Valle, “the assumption that economic engagement with the Castro regime will spare the U.S. an immigration crisis across the Florida Straits appears to be the underlying if unstated motivation for the White House’s unprecedented courtship of Raúl Castro.” If so, it’s a gross miscalculation. The policy has emboldened the dictator.

Some 4,000 Cuban migrants trying to get to the U.S. are now trapped in Costa Rica because Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a Castro pal, will not allow them to move north. They’re fleeing tyranny for sure. But they couldn’t have arrived there without, at a minimum, the tacit approval of the Castro regime.

Those refugees are being used as Castro pawns to create a humanitarian crisis and pressure the U.S. for credit and multilateral aid. Havana is betting Mr. Obama will deliver.