President Barack Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday for the start of an historic visit that encapsulates his efforts to lift the American isolation of the island.
Obama’s two-day visit is the first time in almost ninety years that an American president has visited the Caribbean island.
“Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship and it took him three days to get here,” Obama told diplomatic staff in Havana. “It only took me three hours.”
His administration reopened the embassy in Havana last year as part of a resumption of diplomatic ties.
Relations were severed in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower following the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro’s communists to power.
Castro’s younger brother, Raúl, took over as president in 2008. He was due to meet Obama on Monday.
The two leaders first met and shook hands at the funeral of South Africa’s independence leader Nelson Mandela in 2013.
When Obama announced a reversal of America’s policy toward Cuba the following year, he called isolation an “outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests.”
“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” he argued at the time.
But fully lifting the trade embargo on Cuba will require Congress’ approval. Opposition Republicans and quite a few of the president’s own Democrats are skeptical and unlikely to give their assent before Obama’s term expires next year.
That may come as a relief to the Castros.
The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead has argued that the embargo does more to protect the communists in Havana than it does the United States.
Fidel and Raúl have never wanted a total end to the embargo; they have understood for decades that the embargo acts to protect their socialist experiment.
If the sanctions were removed, the regime would either have to accept a likely influx of Cubans from Florida, “swamping its underdeveloped and scrawny local economy with gringo dollars and influence,” or enact tighter regulations to keep Cuban Americans and their money out — which would make it “crystal clear to every Cuban citizen that the Cuban government needs to keep the island isolated and poor in order to protect its grip on power.”
The state has loosened its grip in the last few years. Only around one in ten Cubans receives some portion of their income from private economic activity. But that used to be zero.
“Cubans can now travel abroad, buy and sell homes and cars, start businesses in more than 200 economic activities, receive remittances from families in the United States and attend business classes offered by nongovernmental institutions,” report the Washington Office on Latin America’s Marc Hanson and Geoff Thale.
The two argue that as more Cubans leave the state payrolls to engage in private economic activity, “their relationship with their government is being fundamentally altered.”
Political freedoms are still severely constrained.
On the eve of Obama’s visit, authorities arrested dozens of “Ladies in White” who protest weekly for human rights.
Only one political party is allowed on the island: the Communist Party. Dissidents are continually harassed, subject to arbitrary arrests and detentions. All news media are owned and controlled by the state.
But the creeping expansion of Internet access is starting to break the government monopoly on information and Hanson and Thale write that Cubans are becoming comfortable expressing their political opinions in conversations. Public manifestations of dissent, though, are still rare.