President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba on March 20 heralds a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations, even as the Castro family remains in power and as a Republican-dominated Congress opposes Obama's initiative.
Obama is the first sitting American president to visit Havana since President Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928, and is the first to visit the island since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, according to The Guardian.
The biggest change likely emerge from meetings between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro is a path to normalization on trade between the two countries, even as profound differences divide the U.S. and Cuba economically and politically. Obama is hoping the historic visit foreshadows a shift towards more freedom for the Cuban people and new economic opportunities for American businesses.
The U.S. trade embargo has helped to damage economic opportunities over the decades; even international ships were once banned from docking there if they desired entry into American ports, The Guardian reports. Obama's visit to Cuba is as much about rectifying a broken U.S. policy as it is trying to cultivate a new trade partner, meaning that the altruism being shown in public should be taken with a grain of salt.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica, said of Obama's visit: "There is a lot of talk that the purpose of opening up the relationship is to bring about change in Cuba, I don’t think that’s the case. Obama is doing this not for Cuba’s sake, but the U.S.’s sake, because this had become an embarrassment for the U.S. -- a major obstacle in the relationship with Latin America."
A hostile Republican Congress has long been firmly against the idea of lifting the trade embargo on Cuba. Yet this dynamic seems to be changing
Whle Congress is still generally hostile to the idea, its opponents seem to be getting quieter. Former presidential candidate Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida's blowout loss to Donald Trump in the Florida primary, coupled with his decision to not seek reelection for his Senate seat, shows how even a large number of Cuban Americans in Florida no longer see hostility towards Cuba's communist government as a key election issue.
Changes are taking place in the relationship between the two countries, some of which have been triggered by Obama's desire for normalization of ties between them and some of which have occurred independently of it.
When it comes to political change, it's not so simple.
Critics, such as The Washington Post's Marc Thiessen, see Obama's move as appeasement to a dictatorial government that has been cracking down on human rights in the weeks leading up to Obama's visit.
Thiessen has a point when he criticizes the president's 2014 statement that "if we're going backwards [on human rights] then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo." Obama has a history of making regrettable statements of great importance that contradicted past positions, such as his "red-line" in Syria.
Where Thiessen gets it wrong, is his outrage at the president's message that "that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change."
Thiessen argues that the Castro regime is the only thing preventing the Cuban people from having a democracy, as if the U.S. trade embargo had no role in creating negative perceptions of U.S. policies toward the nation.
It's also laughably unrealistic to imagine that President Obama -- or any president -- whether he was in the U.S. or in Havana, would simply be able to compel the Castro regime to remove itself from power. Even if he was able to, it would come at the expense of disastrous relations with the rest of Latin America. Obama's typical approach is subtlety and caution, which his opponents have gotten tired of.
But Obama's incremental approach is a better one for achieving lasting change. Even dissidents like Jose Daniel Ferrer, who was imprisoned in 2008, believe Obama's visit is a good thing even if Obama does not take a Reaganesque, "tear-down-this-wall" approach to diplomacy with the Castro regime.
"Obama's visit is good for the people and good for the cause," Ferrer told CNN. He is meeting Obama on March 22, CNN reports.