Obama's delicate dance on Vietnam's 'dire' human rights

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (CNN)President Barack Obama sought to navigate a difficult path in Vietnam during a Tuesday speech, balancing criticism for human rights with praise for progress. But in doing so, he appeared to give the Communist country more of a pass than he has other nations with similar abuses.

The troubled condition of human rights in Vietnam loomed over his visit as unavoidably as the oppressive rain clouds. Human Rights Watch recently called the state of things here "dire in all areas," but the President clearly wanted to broach the sticky subject as carefully as possible, just as the two nations are finally normalizing relations.
But in a striking contrast with previous admonishes to other countries -- such as Kenya and Ethiopia -- Obama waited until close to the end of his speech to the Vietnamese people before bringing it up. He prefaced it as if to buffer the blow -- by listing some of America's own shortcomings: the racial divide, for example, and women's struggle for equal pay.
    The comparison between the state of human rights in the U.S. and those in this one-party Communist country that still holds political prisoners and censors news broadcasts seems to be a bit of a stretch, but Obama told the crowd that no country is perfect.
    He also was notably general in his remarks, avoiding any specific detailing of Vietnam's problems.
    "The U.S. does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam. The rights I speak of are not American values, they are universal values written into the universal declaration of human rights," he said. "They are written into the Vietnamese Constitution which states citizens have the right of freedom of speech, freedom of press, the right to access of information, right to assembly, right to association and right to demonstrate. That's in the Vietnamese Constitution."
    Compare that to the President's far bolder, more direct words in Africa -- his rousing speeches to Kenyans and Ethiopians last summer, that left people open-mouth stunned, turning to one another and delightedly asking, "Can you believe he's saying this?" in the presence of their leaders.
    "Corruption is tolerated because that's how things have always been done. People just think that that is sort of the normal state of affairs," Obama had said, referencing even the highest levels of government.
    "It's time to change habits, and decisively break that cycle. Because corruption holds back every aspect of economic and civil life. It's an anchor that weighs you down and prevents you from achieving what you could," he had said. "If you need to pay a bribe and hire somebody's brother -- who's not very good and doesn't come to work -- in order to start a business, well, that's going to create less jobs for everybody."
    In Ethiopia, more exhilaration and shocked laughter, at these words: "Africa's democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end ... If journalists are restricted, or legitimate opposition groups can't participate in the campaign process."
    What's more: Vietnam didn't exactly try to paper over its continuing control over society here, even on this historic visit that saw thousands of people lining the streets to cheer the American president on.
    At one point the Vietnamese government ordered the BBC to stop reporting. Foreign live news broadcasts still aired about 10 minutes late, to allow government censors time to survey them first. At least 100 political prisoners remain jailed, according to U.S. officials. And perhaps the freshest example: The government barred three activists from attending a meeting with Obama, over the White House and State Department's protestations.
    White House officials defended the President's tact, noting the remarkable, unprecedented reality that state TV even aired the President's speech at all. That is indeed some progress, considering that merely 20 years ago people in Hanoi were told to avoid so much as speaking to foreigners.
    But at the same time, there is still the Politburo's evident and "significant discomfort," as Ben Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security adviser, described it in a call with reporters.
    Clearly, the White House didn't want to deliver too much of a rebuke, while agreements are being signed, cooperation is new and Vietnam is working on things like increasing transparency and giving people more legal rights.
    "We're coming here to engage the Vietnamese people and part of that engagement is going to be advocacy around these issues. And people know what we stand for," Rhodes said. "They know that we raise individual human rights cases. They know that we advocate for the types of reforms that we'd like to see here."
    He said Vietnam has indeed made commitments to greater rights for its people during this historic visit. And moving forward, other engagement with the country, including arms sales, will take progress in this area into account.
    Unfortunately, it's early in the process.
    "You gotta also recognize the time it takes for cultural transformation, for generational transformation, for people to be able to learn how to manage and exercise rights and certain freedoms," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters.
    "For countries that don't begin with that or don't have any of that tradition, we have to recognize the road that they're on -- it's gonna be, you know, a roller coaster ride to some degree," he said. "So long as it's moving in the same direction -- that's what is important. As long as the United States itself remains faithful, we are always pushing in the right direction as the President did today, I think we can absolutely look forward with confidence to this transformation taking hold."