U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that he will visit Cuba in March. The historical visit will continue the steady process of normalizing relations between the United States and the communist island 150 km to the south. It is more symbolic than substantive, but that has not stopped opponents of rapprochement with Havana from protesting the trip. Their objections, like their preferred policy of continued isolation, are mistaken. Only engagement will bring about change in Cuba.
Calvin Coolidge was the last U.S. president to visit Cuba — in 1928. He traveled there aboard a U.S. battleship, an appropriate symbol given the gunboat diplomacy that Washington then wielded in its relations with Latin America. The U.S. was first supportive when rebels overthrew the ruling dictatorship in Havana in 1959, but the new government’s close relations to Moscow and its increasingly authoritarian tendencies pushed the U.S. to sever ties in 1961. Since then, a hard core of Cuban refugees that opposes the government in Havana has steadfastly fought any normalization of relations, preferring isolation, condemnation and attempts at regime change.
The fact that such a policy has had no discernible impact on the Havana government has not affected the hard-liners’ thinking. They still insist that Cuba should democratize before the U.S. “rewards” it with relations. The size of the Cuban exile community in Florida, an important state in the U.S. electoral process, has ensured that politicians gave their views considerable weight in Washington’s policy toward the island.
Nevertheless, the policy of isolation has failed by any and every measure. Dissidents remain incarcerated. Political rights are restricted. Economic opportunities are limited. Ordinary citizens suffer as a result of the sanctions against Cuba imposed by the U.S., which Washington demands that other nations respect. Yet the continued hostility of the U.S. gives the Cuban government an easy excuse for its own failures.
This manifest failure prompted Obama to reassess the U.S. relationship with Cuba. After several years of secret negotiations, brokered by the Vatican, he announced in 2014 that Washington would begin the process of normalizing relations with Havana. Since then, the two countries have reopened embassies, high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have visited the island, and the economic relationship has warmed. Travel restrictions have been loosened and U.S. airlines are now battling to secure routes between the two countries. Sanctions remain in place, however. The U.S. thus retains leverage by holding out the prospect of further loosening of restrictions as a reward for reform.
Obama has already met and shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro, a gesture that would appear to be simple courtesy but was loaded with significance. His upcoming trip is also fraught with symbolism. Obama had said that he would not visit Cuba unless he could meet with dissidents; his March visit will include that encounter, along with meetings with Castro, entrepreneurs and other members of Cuban society.
The hard-liners’ response was predictable. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees, dismissed the Havana government as “an anti-American communist dictatorship” and promised that he won’t visit the country until it is free. His rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also the son of a Cuban refugee, was equally dismissive of the Obama announcement, calling the visit “a real mistake.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Florida, said it was “pitiful that Obama rewards Castro with a visit to Cuba while conditions for the Cuban people are getting worse.”
The objections are revealing. First, the idea that engagement “rewards” the Cuban government suggests that diplomacy can only follow reform, a maximalist position that encourages pressure to promote change. That is a striking contrast with the practice of most U.S. diplomacy, which has insisted that engagement itself is the best catalyst for reform, as the exposure to ideas erodes support for authoritarian regimes.
Second, they demonstrate a failure to grasp the bankruptcy of U.S. policy and the inability of the hard line to bring about the change that is so desperately needed. The opposition claims that U.S. shifts have not brought about change either, but the hope that a policy that has promoted a half century of regime consolidation in Havana will bring about different results tomorrow is wishful thinking masquerading as strategy.
Third, the hard line reveals a striking misreading of reality in Cuba. Cubans may not enjoy political liberties, but the people are nationalists who take great pride in standing up to the bully to the north.
Finally, the opening to Cuba is proof that Obama retains considerable power and influence. The idea that he is a weak, lame-duck leader is wrong. His dealings with Cuba, like the nuclear deal with Iran, are proof that he is interested in reaching out to long-shunned U.S. adversaries, that he seeks to change regional political dynamics and that he is playing the long game, creating a legacy in both foreign and domestic affairs that will long survive his presidency.