The historic nature of Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba lies not only in having been the first U.S. president to come to the island in 88 years, but it also portends a transformation in the lives of the Cuban people. In his meeting with President Raul Castro it became clear that the dictatorship will continue to repress individual liberties, repression that Obama knew beforehand he would not be able to change during his two day stay, beyond the symbolic gesture of Castro’s release of a few political prisoners (while Raul Castro denied the existence of said prisoners in a press conference). Obama acknowledged this in Havana when he said that the future of the island is in the hands of the Cuban people themselves. On the other hand, they both supported the same platform that consisted of Castro’s claim for the return of Guantanamo Bay, and the end of the economic embargo imposed more than a half-century ago, which is a course that depends on the U.S. Congress in Washington. Up until now the Republican majority opposition has stopped this course, and it will only be possible to move forward after the November presidential election if Obama and Hillary Clinton’s fellow party members win, and the composition of Congress changes.
The greatest impact of the president’s trip was made with his conciliatory attitude and by the hundreds of American businessmen who accompanied him to begin investing in tourism — the island’s largest industry — and other ventures, as pointed out by Obama himself. This investment expansion from the United States, up to the point that the embargo allows, will be decisive in improving living conditions for the impoverished Cuban people and for strengthening the economy through job creation and the flow of businesses and visitors loaded with dollars. However, individual liberties and respect for human rights will remain ignored.
Cuba is a unique case in Latin America. It is a country that has never been free throughout its history. First it was a Spanish colony, afterward it lived under the patronage of the United States since the dawn of the 20th century, and later became part of the Soviet empire in 1960 after the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro. Right when the USSR fell apart the island inadvertently became the master of its own destiny, albeit under a rigid dictatorship. However, without foreign aid and with an economy destroyed by the failure of the socialist dirigisme, it survived in misery until Raul replaced his sick brother Fidel.
The current president introduced a somewhat modest opening toward domestic private enterprise that propelled the tourism industry. The decisive mediating intervention of Pope Francis finally arrived to bring these two parts — the goodwill of Obama and the economic realism that Raul Castro learned the hard way with the passing of years — together. This combination of factors paved the way for the relationship thaw, allowing the two old enemies to live together better despite their differences.
Cuba, partly imitating China, will from now on be a country more open to foreign private investment, but will maintain the rigidity of a communist dictatorship. This will not change for a long time, but at least it represents a step forward for a nation that will gradually gain greater economic relief, albeit without the political liberties that, on the other hand, the population has never known. For the slightest hint of a more democratic opening, they will have to continue waiting for a new leader, and for the natural effect of the future pressures of a somewhat more prosperous society.