Is it symbolic? An effort to burnish his legacy and prevent his Cuba policies from being reversed once he leaves office? Or simply an ill-conceived 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, who was imprisoned in Cuba, and a group of Cuban spies jailed in the United States and then morphed into a rapprochement between the countries. They broke off relations on Jan. 3, 1961, after a year in which Cuba had seized U.S.-owned properties and become increasingly cozy with the Soviet Union.
There have been many historic moments since Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, not only that Gross and the spies would be going home but also that the United States and Cuba had agreed to normalize relations.
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 such as 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, saying they didn’t go far enough. Despite the new relationship, he said there was no way that internal changes in Cuba were on the negotiating table. He said if the United States really wanted 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.”
Obama 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.
The president also has said he plans to bring up democracy and human rights, including “universal values” such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion.
“I will raise these issues directly with President Castro,” Obama said in a letter to Ladies in White, a group of the wives and children of past and current political prisoners that has been critical of the shift in Cuba policy. “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.”
Although the number of short-term political detentions fell shortly after the rapprochement was announced, they began to accelerate by midyear and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Conciliation reported 8,616 cases of arbitrary detentions in 2015, compared with 8,819 the year before. The trend has continued with more than 2,500 detentions in the first two months of this year.
During the trip, Obama also plans to speak directly to the Cuban people. He will meet with dissidents Tuesday.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is among those who think the president’s trip is misguided and serves only 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.
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.”
“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.”
Saladrigas was part of a group of Cuban-Americas who met with Obama on Wednesday.
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 positive views of Obama. Seventeen percent viewed him negatively, compared with 48 percent who had negative opinions of Raúl Castro and 50 percent who said they had negative views of Fidel Castro.
Saladrigas said he hoped the Cuban people would be encouraged by Obama’s visit: “Expectations beget expectations and hope begets hope.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.