Last week, President Obama made modern history by becoming the first sitting president since Calvin Coolidge to set foot on Cuban soil. Since the end of 2014 when Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, finalized negotiations to normalize relations, speculation that Obama would visit Cuba had been widespread. The president’s visit signals a major step towards repairing US-Cuba relations.
Obama’s visit was the capstone of a large project between the US and Cuba to improve relations. For the past two years, Obama and Castro have made attempts to reconcile decades of hostility and work towards normalization. With the enlisted help of Pope Francis and over 18 months of conversations that eventually led to prisoner releases from both sides, the two countries have taken baby steps towards looking past their ideological differences and embracing the similarities in their identities.
The tumultuous history between the US and Cuba, which peaked during the Cold War Era, still has economic consequences today. The existing US embargo against Cuba is fortified through six statutes. Some of them imply economic noncooperation by restricting trade with nations “hostile” to the US. Other acts, like the Cuba Assets Control Regulations, target Cuba exclusively. At the conclusion of the Cold War, presidents have revisited the US-Cuba relations with limited degrees of success and reciprocation. Under President Clinton, the “wet foot/dry foot” policy was implemented. This controversial policy focused on the status of Cuban refugees to the US: those who were found on land were allowed to stay in the US, but those found at sea were sent back to Cuba. The crudeness of this attempt to monitor and organize the influx of Cubans into the US paled in comparison to the mishaps that happened shortly afterwards. In the year following the implementation of the policy, the Cuban government shot down two American civilian planes for allegedly violating Cuban airspace. In retaliation, Congress gave more teeth to the existing embargo with the Helms-Burton Act. Clinton later slightly softened the embargo by permitting humanitarian charter flights to Cuba. Despite Clinton’s efforts to improve US-Cuba relations, any progress in this direction was quickly backtracked by the presidency of George W. Bush, who took counterproductive measures towards regime change.
In the summer of 2004, the Bush-appointed Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba came up with a 500-page plan to topple what Secretary Rice and others thought was a near-collapsed Castro regime. The report, reminiscent of many examples of regime change, outlined recommended actions, “provided that Cubans on the island wished to initiate them.” However, the report failed to even garner support among regime dissidents, who were unwilling to receive these “handouts” and believed that most of the money would be used to line the pockets of Cuban exiles in Miami. At the same time, Cuba enjoyed economic growth of 8 percent per year with revenues from tourism and oil trade with Venezuela and China, quite the contrary to the report’s assumptions that Cuba’s collapse could easily be induced. To further the embarrassment, the Bush administration failed to declare Luis Posada, co-architect of the Cubana airliner bombing in 1976, a terrorist under the PATRIOT Act, and intends to neither extradite him to another country nor try him in the US. His partner, Orlando Bosch, was also pardoned by the first President Bush. Practically speaking, the Bush administration has made no tangible changes to the Cuban government’s power, Cuban dissidents’ power, and overall Cuban respect for the US. Its actions are futile.
Since replacing Bush, Obama has worked tirelessly to move past decades of enmity between Cuba and the US. What makes the current president’s olive branch to Cuba unique is its intention: His policies have thus far not attempted to drastically alter the political and economic structure of Cuba. Such interventionist goals were the primary drivers of Cold War policies and were upheld during the Bush administration. However, when Obama spoke at the Gran Teatro de la Habana he “made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba…[The United States] will not impose our political or economic system on you.”
Obama has also addressed his concern for human rights in Cuba in a very smart way. Although his ideology on democracy and human rights remains clear, he articulates his ideas in a carefully respectful manner. In the same speech, he emphasized that “every person should be equal under the law… every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads…that citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear — to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully…that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly…voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.” By accompanying these ideals with, “I can’t force you to agree, but you should know what I think,” Obama has voiced his opinion honestly and has bounced the ball back to Castro’s court, inviting him to acknowledge and match international standards for human rights and freedom.
Although Castro’s government may be slow to respond to such suggestions, by planting the ideas in Cuban minds, Obama has set the scene for normalization of political and economic relations. The president has already used executive power to ease restrictions on travel. In addition, US citizens can send money to non-communist officials Cubans. In late May 2015, the Obama administration also removed Cuba from the state terror list. And yet, the US-Cuba relationship faces many challenges. Senate leaders, such as the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-TN), believe that the embargo on Cuba, enforced since 1960, is unlikely to be removed by Congress under the current administration. Like many congressional Republicans, he believes that Cuba needs to “do more to improve human rights before trade is eased.” Therefore, even though the right intent paired with the right rhetoric under President Obama have been successful in improving relations between the two countries thus far, substantial economic rapprochement seems unlikely without structural changes in Havana.
The harshest critics of Obama’s visit accuse the President on two main accounts: they either blame him for empowering dictatorship, or chastise him for not cutting the trip short in response to the Brussels attacks. In fact, the strongest backlash came from Cuban American politicians. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has established himself as a vocal opponent of Obama’s Cuban policy. Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who also critiqued Obama strongly, said that the entire process, starting from the prisoner swap, “has wrongly rewarded a totalitarian regime and thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline.” Sen. Menendez has been critical of what he views as the US compromising its “bedrock values” in an attempt to open up a repressive state where dissidents are imprisoned and their rights are violated. Menendez believes that reaching out to Cuba removes the responsibility for Cuba’s economic shortcomings from the Cuban regime.
Indeed, Obama admitting that “[he] has come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas” can be seen as equivalent to admitting a failure of US rollback after the Cold War. Furthermore, attempts to improve relations and switching US strategy towards Cuba can be viewed as backtracking from the precedent of national ideological principles.
The key response to such criticism of Obama’s efforts to improve US-Cuba relations is to highlight the fact that the potential sacrifices of American values in doing so pale in comparison to the message of peace and willingness for dialogue that such behavior sends to the Cuban people. Through his rhetoric, Obama has signaled that US democratic values have achieved more successful economic outcomes than the command economic structure of Havana, which sets an inspiring example. While it is possible to lament this reconciliation as a form of weakness, it is also possible, and much more productive, to see the visit as helping a losing opponent come to terms with defeat and begin to recover.