Obama’s historic trip to Cuba rife with risk, opportunity


President Barack Obama will open a new era in the United States’ thorny relationship with Cuba during a history-making trip that has two seemingly dissonant goals: locking in his softer approach while also pushing the island’s communist leaders to change their ways.

Obama’s 2½ day visit starting Sunday will be a crowning moment for the ambitious diplomatic experiment that he and President Raul Castro’s government announced barely a year ago. After a half-century of acrimony, the two former Cold War foes are now in regular contact. American travelers and businesses are eagerly eyeing opportunities on the island nation 90 miles (145 km) south of Florida.

Joined by his family, Obama will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Castro in his presidential offices — images unimaginable just a few years ago. He will sit in the stands with baseball-crazed Cubans for a historic game between their beloved national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Obama also will meet with political dissidents. Their experiences in the one-party state help explain why some Cuban-Americans see Obama’s outreach as a disgraceful embrace of a government whose practices and values betray much of what America stands for. Increasingly, though, that’s becoming a minority view among Cuban-Americans, as well as the broader U.S. population.

White House officials are mindful that Obama cannot appear to gloss over deep and persistent differences. Even as the president works toward better ties, his statements alongside Castro and dissidents will be scrutinized for signs of how aggressively he is pushing the Havana government to fulfill promises of reform.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez rebuked Obama ahead of the trip for suggesting that he would use the visit to promote change. Rodriguez said that many of Obama’s policy changes have essentially been meaningless, and he dismissed the notion that Obama was in any position to empower Cubans.

“The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current government in power. He said if Obama was preoccupied with empowering Cubans, “something must be going wrong in U.S. democracy.”

Obama’s aides and supporters in Congress brushed off such tough talk from Cuban officials. They argue that decades of a U.S. policy of isolation that failed to bring about change in Cuba illustrated why engaging with the island is worthwhile.

Yet Obama’s opponents insist he is rewarding a government that has yet to show it is serious about improving human rights and opening up its economy and political system. Though Obama has been rolling back restrictions on Cuba through regulatory moves, he has been unable to persuade Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo, a chief Cuban demand.

“To this day, this is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and to fugitives,” said Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. “Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit.”

Two years after taking power in 2008, Raul Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society. The changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to work in the private sector and have relaxed limits on cellphones, Internet and Cubans’ comfort with discussing their country’s problems in public, for example.

The Cuban government has been unyielding, however, on making changes to its single-party political system and to the strict limits on media, public speech, assembly and dissent.

While in Havana, Obama will attend a state dinner in his honor and lay a wreath at a memorial to Jose Marti, a Cuban independence hero. He will give a speech at the Grand Theater of Havana — carried on Cuban television. White House aides said Obama will lay out a vision of greater freedoms and economic opportunity.

Ahead of his trip, Obama announced moves to further lift U.S. restrictions on Cuba, including easing travel restrictions for Americans and restoring Cuba’s access to the global financial system. Cuba has been slower to approve U.S. businesses operating in Cuba and to take other steps sought by the U.S. But Cuba did announce plans to lift a 10 percent conversion fee on U.S. dollars.

The jubilation that surged through Cuba in the early days of detente has been tempered by the absence of tangible improvement in most people’s lives. Obama is well-regarded in Cuba, and though his trip has spurred excitement in the country, few Cubans expect to see Obama in person. The Castro government has announced a virtual shutdown of Havana during Obama’s stay.

“I don’t think things are going to improve here,” said Rosa Lopez, 52-year-old food stand worker. Gesturing at her worn-out sandals and soft drinks for sale, she added, “All this is here, in this country, and the United States is way over there.”

Obama’s trip comes in the midst of a heated U.S. presidential election in which his willingness to talk to America’s foes — not only Cuba, but also Iran — has been a focus.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has embraced much of his foreign policy agenda, including the Cuba opening. But Republican candidates describe Obama’s outreach to Castro as part of a pattern of naive overtures to enemies that has yielded little in return.

Against that backdrop, Obama aims to avoid glaring missteps that could make a rollback of his Cuba policy more palatable to Americans. He hopes a successful trip will make that impossible, even if a Republican is elected in November.

“We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.