The visit to Havana — the first by an American president since 1928 — exposes Obama to criticism and the Castro regime to change. It also opens the possibility for new contracts in the tourism industry.
By stepping onto the tarmac at Havana Airport on Sunday, Barack Obama must have felt the weight of history and savored the symbolism of the moment. For the first time since Calvin Coolidge’s visit in 1928, a serving American president is in Cuba. It is a three-day visit to seal the rapprochement between the two neighboring Cold War enemies.
Had the first black U.S. president who is making the trip in the company of his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters been dreaming of setting foot on Cuban soil since his accession to the White House? In January 2009 during his inauguration speech he sang the praises of open diplomacy, breaking off the “Axis of Evil” of the Bush years. In light of today’s events, this sentence has particular significance: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Fists have been gradually unclenched between Washington and Havana, opening the way to a series of firsts. The first handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro took place at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. The first phone call was made at the end of 2014, formalizing the rapprochement between the two countries. The first formal discussion took place at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015. If you take Obama’s 2009 speech at its word, Cuba remains on the wrong side of history for now. An authoritarian regime which crushes press freedom and represses opposition; political openness remains marginal on the communist island. Even if the Cuban government has released several dozen political prisoners as provided by the rapprochement agreement with the United States, it is increasingly resorting to short-term detentions to prevent opposition figures from participating in peaceful marches or meetings. During Pope Francis’s visit in September 2015, between 100 and 150 dissidents were arrested. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (a nongovernmental organization that is banned but tolerated by the authorities) counted 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015 and more than 2,500 in the first two months of 2016. This Sunday, a few hours before Obama’s arrival, several dozen dissidents were arrested, according to Agence France-Presse.
In this context, Obama’s visit has provoked a lot of criticism in the United States, including in his own party. “I understand the desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake,” said Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator of Cuban descent, last week. In the White House, it is acknowledged that “strong disagreements” persist with Havana with regard to human rights. But for Ben Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor, “engagement puts the United States in a better position to raise those differences directly with the government, while also hearing directly from civil society.” In addition to a face-to-face meeting with Raúl Castro and a state banquet, Obama must meet dissidents. He will also address the Cuban people in a speech to be broadcast on television. “His message on human rights needs to be forceful and specific,” believes José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
In an editorial in the style of a warning published by the official daily newspaper Granma, the Cuban authorities warned Washington against any interference: “The United States must abandon its desire to create an interior political opposition,” the text hammers home. Despite this firmness and the regime recently becoming more hard line, some experts are saying that the symbolic impact of the visit should not be underestimated. “From a Cuban point of view, this visit is very risky,” judges Richard Feinberg, Latin America specialist at the Brookings Institution. “You will have a youthful, vigorous mixed race leader who looks like the average Cuban and for the Cuban leadership that is an uncomfortable comparison with an aging, distant leader.”
According to Feinberg, the American president’s mere presence threatens the Castro regime’s founding principles. “Cuba’s national security paradigm was founded on the fear of American imperialism. That was their excuse for the lack of pluralism and the economic shortcomings. When you host the president of the United States, what happens to this paradigm? It evaporates. And that, in my view, is a major success for the Obama administration,” Feinberg said.* Freed from the label of sworn enemy, the U.S. hopes to strengthen its economic presence on the island. Several CEOs, including those of Xerox and Marriott Hotels, are accompanying Obama on his trip to Cuba, as well as the American secretaries of agriculture and commerce. Washington reduced the restrictions on travel and commercial trade 18 months ago. On Saturday, Starwood became the first American hotel group to sign an agreement with Cuba since 1959.
But for now, very few major contracts have been signed, due to restrictive Cuban laws and bureaucracy. In addition and above all, the American economic embargo in place since 1962 is to blame. The Cuban regime and Obama are together calling for its removal. The Republican-controlled Congress categorically refuses to do this. Yet in Cuba, the needs and opportunities are enormous. Weakened by the difficulties of its Venezuelan sponsor, the Cuban economy needs American dollars more than ever. Especially in the tourism sector, where the influx of visitors, including Americans, sheds light on the chronic lack of accommodation capacity.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this exact quotation could not be independently verified.