Obama in Havana

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According to Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, President Barack and Michelle Obama’s trip to Cuba, scheduled for March 21 and 22, is aimed at making the normalization of relations with the island, begun little more than a year  ago, “an irreversible policy.” From a US perspective, the policy already looks pretty much irreversible.

To be sure, the US and Cuba are not yet particularly friendly or supportive. The fact is they remain quite critical of one another, even as they have gone a long way toward repairing their once fractured, hostile relationship. The progress in the past 13 months is impressive. The two countries have established normal diplomatic relations and opened full-fledged embassies in Havana and Washington. Cuba has been removed from the US list of terrorist sponsoring nations. Presidents Obama and Castro held two extended meetings last year, and US barriers to travel and financial transfers to Cuba have been considerably eased.

Even though the congressionally mandated US trade embargo remains in place, blocking travel and commerce between the US and Cuba, it is steadily eroding. Just this past month, an agreement was reached to begin regularly scheduled air travel between the two countries, allowing for more than 100 flights a day. The first US-owned factory, producing agricultural machinery, is being opened in Havana. Transactions between US and Cuban banks are now permitted, and ferry service between Havana and Miami is likely to begin soon. Negotiations have begun in order to settle the financial claims of US citizens on the Cuban government.

With all this in mind, it is hard to imagine any serious regression in the relationship. Certainly, a US reversal in policy would make Washington look rather foolish and raise concerns about its reliability as an international partner.  Remarkably, there has been little opposition in the US to any of the White House measures. Although Republicans hold ample majorities in both houses of Congress, they have not sought to prevent or even delay the changes. To date, the only proposals advanced in Congress are directed to weaken, not tighten, embargo. Nor has any serious resistance emerged in Miami, the stronghold of anti-Castro sentiment—not a single significant protest or demonstration. Indeed, most Americans approve the changes, including most Republican voters and Cuban Americans. Even if one of the two Cuban-American candidates for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, two especially vocal opponents of reconciliation, were elected president, it is unlikely the US would turn the clock back—although further progress could be at risk.

The Objectives of the Trip

President Obama is not visiting Cuba out of concern that US policy in Cuba will somehow revert back to its previous state of hostility. Rather, the question is whether that policy can and will lead to further advances, particularly from Havana, in the relationship. In Washington, the most common criticism of the reconciliation effort is that the Cuban government is just not doing enough—a criticism that the president seems to share. Just a few months ago, when asked in an interview about a possible trip to Cuba, President Obama said that he wanted to use the visit to highlight advances toward “the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans,” while noting his concern that Cuba may have gone “backward” on that score. 

In fact, Obama was simply restating the central objective of his administration’s policy change toward Cuba—and identifying the yardstick by which the success of that change would be measured: the extent to which Cuba’s closed economy and society are opened up—in order to improve the economic situation of Cubans, give them the right to express their opinions, and allow them to select their leaders. For their part, Cuban officials balk at that definition of success, often suggesting that the US is still pursuing “regime change,” seeking as before to replace Cuba’s political and economic order, only now with different tactics.

Although democratic practice and the rule of law are regularly violated in many Latin America countries and often in the US as well, Cuba rejects the norm of judicial independence and its record on issues of human rights and freedom of expression remains especially dismal.

But Cuba is responsible for bringing its policies and practices into line with regional and international standards. Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that rejects free elections. Although democratic practice and the rule of law are regularly violated in many Latin America countries and often in the US as well, Cuba rejects the norm of judicial independence and its record on issues of human rights and freedom of expression remains especially dismal. The country’s unworkable economic policies severely limit the opportunities available to Cubans and keep many of them in deep poverty.

President Obama, as he should be, will be seeking to encourage the Cuban government to move more purposefully toward loosening current constraints on the island’s economy and political life, and perhaps emphasize the support it could get from Washington if it were to do so. It is hard to imagine more than a modest success, however. The slow pace of Raul Castro’s economic reforms is indicative of the difficulties of pursuing change in Cuba. Yet the political winds in both the US and Cuba suggest that this may be a propitious moment for constructive exchange of views.  US officials and many private actors sense that the issues are at least being discussed in Cuba and that different options are under consideration. The Obama visit is a way to reinforce the views of Cuban reform proponents. The White House is also seeking to take full advantage of the considerable support across the US for warmer relations on all fronts with Cuba.   

The Scope of Reforms in Cuba

Measures introduced in the past half a dozen years have led to a growing private sector. More than a million Cubans, about 20 percent of the workforce, are today self-employed or working in private businesses or cooperatives. No one is yet quite sure how vibrant this independent economy is, however. With statistics extremely limited, the evidence remains largely anecdotal. Clearly, there are many success stories, but survival rates and profitability of new enterprises are unknown. The great majority of businesses has only one or two employees and faces a variety of problems—including the lack of wholesale markets, heavy taxes, and burdensome and uncertain regulations. The government’s intentions remain difficult to decipher.  The Cuban authorities emphasize that they will modernize and adjust the economy, but they also say they will not alter the socialist system.  

Social and political change is even harder in Cuba, but no one should ignore the shifts that have taken place in recent years. The most dramatic change has been the surprisingly rapid expansion of a rich diversity of semi-autonomous institutions. These mostly small, Havana-based groups have created opportunities for debate and advocacy on a range of critical social, political, and economic issues—including race relations, women’s and LGBT rights, environmental challenges, cultural creativity, and freedom of expression. They convene meetings and forums, organize debates, prepare and distribute articles and reports, publish regular blogs and newsletters, and sponsor cultural events.  The thawing of US-Cuba relations has increased the confidence of these groups and given them a greater measure of optimism about the future. Nonetheless, all of them remain fragile and vulnerable. They occupy an undefined space in Cuba. They are not authorized by the government, but neither are they illegal. Despite the risks, the fact that these institutions exist and operate openly, and that their numbers are growing is ample reason for some optimism about the prospects for a more open society in Cuba. 

There is no question that the visit of the Obamas will contribute enormously to continued building of a reservoir of good will for the US among Cubans. Indeed that reservoir has been under construction since December 17th 2014, when presidents Castro and Obama announced the thaw in relations.  Obama’s trip in March will raise the spirit of the Cuban people, and give them the opportunity to demonstrate the high value they place on a warm, robust relationship with their closest neighbor. His reception might well demonstrate greater enthusiasm than was on display for Pope Francis last year. For sure, Obama’s presence will help to cement progress toward normal ties and make backsliding—in the US or Cuba—even harder, regardless of results of the 2016 US presidential elections or the outcome of Cuba’s Communist Party congress in April or the scheduled transition from the Raul Castro presidency in 2018.

What remains to be seen

It remains to be seen, however, whether and to what extent the visit leads to a more open economy, society, and politics—which is and should be President Obamas most important objective.  What could make a big difference is whether the US president will be able to address ordinary Cubans—who are not officials, church or cultural leaders, or dissidents, just regular people. That would be unique for a foreign leader in Cuba and play to Obama’s strengths. 

Cuba is a test of Obama’s approach to foreign policy—which, from the outset of his administration, has called for engagement with adversaries as well as friends in building peace and advancing human rights, and joining with others in pursuing its international aims.

For Obama, the trip will be a time to observe first hand his most successful and least controversial foreign policy initiative. True, the nuclear arms treaty with Iran and the Transpacific Trade Partnership, are more ambitious—and, if successful, will likely have broader impact. But so far, only the Cuban initiative enjoys widespread approval in the US. Cuba is a test of Obama’s approach to foreign policy—which, from the outset of his administration, has called for engagement with adversaries as well as friends in building peace and advancing human rights, and joining with others in pursuing its international aims. Obama put it this way in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“… in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone... The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone.  At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy.  I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.  But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo.  No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.”

Obama should be proud of what he has accomplished in Cuba. He should make full use of his trip to show how important the changes have been so far and underscore the great potential that remains to be unleashed for improving the lives of the Cuban people.