Obama’s trip to Cuba provokes strong emotions
Obama will make the first visit by a sitting president in nearly 90 years
Major issues still separate the two countries
But progress has been made since rapprochement announced Dec. 17, 2014
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Symbolic, an effort to burnish his legacy and prevent his Cuba policies
from being reversed once he leaves office, a chance to nudge Cuba toward
more openness, or simply ill-conceived and a reward for the Castro regime.
Whatever you think about President Barack Obama’s Sunday through Tuesday
trip to Cuba, it clearly provokes strong emotions.
It’s the culmination of a process that began in mid-2013 with secret
talks about freeing U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba,
and a group of Cuban spies jailed in the United States and then morphed
into a rapprochement between the two countries. They broke off relations
on Jan. 3, 1961, after a year in which Cuba seized U.S.-owned properties
and became increasingly cozy with the Soviet Union.
There have been many historic moments since Obama and Cuban leader Raúl
Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that not only Gross and the spies
would be going home but that the United States and Cuba had agreed to
Embassies in both countries have reopened, there have been five sets of
new trade and travel regulations by the United States that chip away at
the embargo, commercial airlines are vying to offer 110 flights daily to
Cuba, and a direct flight carrying mail and parcels landed in Havana on
Wednesday for the first time in decades. The two sides also meet
regularly to discuss topics such as migration and environmental protection.
There have even been meetings on contentious issues like human rights
and U.S. claims for confiscated property but the former adversaries have
a long way to go on both. Although the United States has eliminated many
barriers to doing business — about as much as it can with the embargo
still in place — Cuba has moved much more slowly.
In a news conference Thursday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez
criticized a number of the new U.S. regulations for not going far
enough. Despite the new relationship, he said there’s no way that
internal changes in Cuba are on the negotiating table. He said if the
United States really wants to benefit the Cuban people, it would lift
the “blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo.
“This trip cannot just be a victory lap,” said Peter Schechter, director
of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “There is
much more to be done on the island and with relations with Cuba.”
The president has said that among the issues he plans to discuss with
Castro is how to make it easier for Cubans to access the Internet and
start their own businesses. About 500,000 Cubans are currently
self-employed but regulations don’t allow professionals such as lawyers,
architects and engineers to set up their own practices.
The president also has said he plans to bring up democracy and human
rights, including “universal values” such as freedom of speech, assembly
In a letter he wrote to the Ladies in White, a group comprised of the
wives and children of past and current political prisoners that has been
critical of the shift in Cuba policy, Obama promised to speak about
their human rights concerns and an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
“I will raise these issues directly with President Castro. The U.S.
believes that no one in Cuba or anywhere else should face harassment,
arrest, or physical assault just because they are exercising a universal
right to have their voices heard,” Obama said in his letter to the
Ladies in White.
Although the numbers of short-term political detentions fell shortly
after the rapprochement was announced, they began to accelerate by
mid-year and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Conciliation reported 8,616 cases of arbitrary detentions in 2015,
compared to 8,819 the year before. Most of those were short-term
detentions of a few hours or a few days. But the upward trend has
continued with more than 2,500 detentions in the first two months of
During the trip, Obama also plans to speak directly to the Cuban people,
including members of Cuba’s civil society and entrepreneurs. That
outreach will be closely watched in both Miami and inside Cuba. He will
meet with dissidents Tuesday during a civil society roundtable at the
Obama has made it a point to meet with civil society groups and
dissidents on previous international trips, including in countries with
repressive governments such as Burma, Malaysia and Russia. The meetings
are generally closed to the press, but Obama often makes remarks to the
groups in public, underscoring U.S. support for human rights.
“We’ll continue to engage the government to provide more space and more
opportunity for freedom of the press, freedom of association, rule of
law, transparency and accountability,” he said in Burma in 2014, after
meeting at the embassy with representatives of a variety of groups.
For former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the idea that the Obama
administration reforms, which are designed to help the Cuban people
economically, are not related to human rights is “a false perception.”
Respect for private property, the ability to earn a living on one’s own
and the right to provide for a family are among the most precious of
human rights, he said.
“I think we should focus on those Cubans now able to work in the private
sector,” he said during a recent seminar at the Atlantic Council. “We’re
talking about 500,000 people. We have the ability to help them
economically and we should do it.”
But some exiles say the president’s main focus should be democratic
elections and voting. Meeting and having his picture taken with Castro
won’t help the Cuban people, they say.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is among those who
think the president’s trip is misguided and only serves to validate the
Cuban regime. She’s also critical of the administration’s
business-oriented outreach. “The White House continues to grasp at
regulatory straws to see what else it can concede in advance of the
president’s trip to Cuba to promote more funds going in the pockets of
the regime,” she said.
The Miami-based Cuban American Bar Association also sent Obama a letter
criticizing the one-sidedness of the president’s engagement and said he
had conferred “significant political and economic benefits” on Cuba
without getting anything in return. “Since December of 2014, things in
Cuba have only gotten worse for the Cuban people,” the letter said.
In response to a question about legitimizing a government that hasn’t
been democratically elected, Obama told CNN en Español: “I think that
view is naive and is contradicted by the facts, and we’ve seen more
progress over the last year, year and a half on … slow and
incremental, but real changes in terms of how the economy works inside
of Cuba. My view is that this is the beginning, not the end, of what is
going to be a journey that takes some time.”
Plus, the president said, engagement has stripped Cuba of the excuse
that the reason the government couldn’t provide greater freedom for its
people “was that the heavy-handed neighbor to the north was preventing
them, or sabotaging them.”
In some ways, the trip is all about optics from the crack of a baseball
bat as the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban national team — a game that
is on the presidential agenda Tuesday — to which dissidents show up at a
meeting with him at the American Embassy.
“Obama is absolutely right to promote engagement, but not as an end in
itself,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights
Watch. “His message on human rights needs to be forceful and specific,
or the trip may be remembered by Cubans who have suffered half a century
of repression as little more than bonding over baseball.”
But businessman Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group,
said “the mere presence of President Obama in Cuba will be powerful. You
have the young African-American president and leader of the free world
and an aging white leader of a system that is tired and worn-out.
“This theme of contrasts will be an important one in this visit,” said
Saladrigas, who was part of a group of Cuban Americas to meet with Obama
Even though the United States and Cuba were Cold War adversaries, the
Cuban people still feel an affinity toward Americans and an affection
toward Obama. A 2015 poll by Bendixen & Amandi found that 80 percent of
Cubans had a positive view of Obama. Seventeen percent viewed him
negatively, compared to 48 percent who had a negative opinion of Raúl
Castro and 50 percent who said they had a negative view of Fidel Castro.
Saladrigas said he hopes the Cuban people will be encouraged by Obama’s
visit. “Expectations beget expectations and hope begets hope.”
The presidential trip may also make Cuba more of a campaign issue.
Among the surviving presidential hopefuls, Texas Republican Sen. Ted
Cruz is the most pro-embargo. He has called the Obama rapprochement to
Cuba “unconditional surrender.”
Regardless of who sits in the White House in 2017, “I don’t think there
will be a groundswell for reversal” of Obama’s Cuba policy, said Michael
Klein, a Tufts University professor who says what the United States
really needs to do is find a way to help Cuba rebuild its financial system.
But for Jose W. Fernandez, a Cuban-born lawyer and former assistant
secretary of state, the Obama visit is clearly designed to stave off the
possibility: “I think what the president is trying to do is cement his
policies by doing as much as he can to create facts on the ground so it
will be much more difficult to reverse them.”
For that, Fernandez said, the president will need outreach, trade deals
and “something that shows his policy has taken root so that it would be
painful to reverse it.”
With the trip, Obama hopes to build constituencies in both countries for
his Cuba policy, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution. And coming before Cuba’s Seventh Party Congress, where
political and economic directions for the country are defined, he may
also hope to nudge Cuba toward more openness.
MCCLATCHY WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT LESLEY CLARK CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
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