Monday, February 22, 2016

Obama’s historic visit to Cuba

Obama's historic visit to Cuba
FEB 22, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that he will visit Cuba in
March. The historical visit will continue the steady process of
normalizing relations between the United States and the communist island
150 km to the south. It is more symbolic than substantive, but that has
not stopped opponents of rapprochement with Havana from protesting the
trip. Their objections, like their preferred policy of continued
isolation, are mistaken. Only engagement will bring about change in Cuba.

Calvin Coolidge was the last U.S. president to visit Cuba — in 1928. He
traveled there aboard a U.S. battleship, an appropriate symbol given the
gunboat diplomacy that Washington then wielded in its relations with
Latin America. The U.S. was first supportive when rebels overthrew the
ruling dictatorship in Havana in 1959, but the new government's close
relations to Moscow and its increasingly authoritarian tendencies pushed
the U.S. to sever ties in 1961. Since then, a hard core of Cuban
refugees that opposes the government in Havana has steadfastly fought
any normalization of relations, preferring isolation, condemnation and
attempts at regime change.

The fact that such a policy has had no discernible impact on the Havana
government has not affected the hard-liners' thinking. They still insist
that Cuba should democratize before the U.S. "rewards" it with
relations. The size of the Cuban exile community in Florida, an
important state in the U.S. electoral process, has ensured that
politicians gave their views considerable weight in Washington's policy
toward the island.

Nevertheless, the policy of isolation has failed by any and every
measure. Dissidents remain incarcerated. Political rights are
restricted. Economic opportunities are limited. Ordinary citizens suffer
as a result of the sanctions against Cuba imposed by the U.S., which
Washington demands that other nations respect. Yet the continued
hostility of the U.S. gives the Cuban government an easy excuse for its
own failures.

This manifest failure prompted Obama to reassess the U.S. relationship
with Cuba. After several years of secret negotiations, brokered by the
Vatican, he announced in 2014 that Washington would begin the process of
normalizing relations with Havana. Since then, the two countries have
reopened embassies, high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of
State John Kerry, have visited the island, and the economic relationship
has warmed. Travel restrictions have been loosened and U.S. airlines are
now battling to secure routes between the two countries. Sanctions
remain in place, however. The U.S. thus retains leverage by holding out
the prospect of further loosening of restrictions as a reward for reform.

Obama has already met and shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro, a
gesture that would appear to be simple courtesy but was loaded with
significance. His upcoming trip is also fraught with symbolism. Obama
had said that he would not visit Cuba unless he could meet with
dissidents; his March visit will include that encounter, along with
meetings with Castro, entrepreneurs and other members of Cuban society.

The hard-liners' response was predictable. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the
son of Cuban refugees, dismissed the Havana government as "an
anti-American communist dictatorship" and promised that he won't visit
the country until it is free. His rival for the 2016 Republican
presidential nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also the son of a Cuban
refugee, was equally dismissive of the Obama announcement, calling the
visit "a real mistake." Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American
Republican congresswoman from Florida, said it was "pitiful that Obama
rewards Castro with a visit to Cuba while conditions for the Cuban
people are getting worse."

The objections are revealing. First, the idea that engagement "rewards"
the Cuban government suggests that diplomacy can only follow reform, a
maximalist position that encourages pressure to promote change. That is
a striking contrast with the practice of most U.S. diplomacy, which has
insisted that engagement itself is the best catalyst for reform, as the
exposure to ideas erodes support for authoritarian regimes.

Second, they demonstrate a failure to grasp the bankruptcy of U.S.
policy and the inability of the hard line to bring about the change that
is so desperately needed. The opposition claims that U.S. shifts have
not brought about change either, but the hope that a policy that has
promoted a half century of regime consolidation in Havana will bring
about different results tomorrow is wishful thinking masquerading as

Third, the hard line reveals a striking misreading of reality in Cuba.
Cubans may not enjoy political liberties, but the people are
nationalists who take great pride in standing up to the bully to the north.

Finally, the opening to Cuba is proof that Obama retains considerable
power and influence. The idea that he is a weak, lame-duck leader is
wrong. His dealings with Cuba, like the nuclear deal with Iran, are
proof that he is interested in reaching out to long-shunned U.S.
adversaries, that he seeks to change regional political dynamics and
that he is playing the long game, creating a legacy in both foreign and
domestic affairs that will long survive his presidency.

Source: Obama's historic visit to Cuba | The Japan Times -

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