Obama, Our Man in Havana
Good for you, Mr. President. The announcement that President Obama will travel to Cuba in March is welcome news and a bold step in the advancement of his policy of engagement toward the island that began in earnest on December 17, 2014.
The President’s strategy is to empower the Cuban people and pressure the Cuban government for economic and political change through engagement rather than isolation. U.S. policy previously sought to isolate Cuba and force a collapse of the Castro regime and its communist system, but 54 years is a long time to pursue a failed foreign policy. Instead of bringing about regime change, the old approach to Cuba and the U.S. embargo have given the Cuban government a rallying point and an easy excuse for their lack of growth and development. It is past time to change course.
President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations, to include Cuba in the Summit of the Americas, to negotiate the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, and most recently, to negotiate a commercial airline travel deal between the two countries are all significant steps in a powerful new approach to Cuba. Despite what critics say, these steps are designed to help the Cuban people, bringing them back into the fold so that we can start talking about human rights, political opening and democracy, civil society, economic policy, trade, and security.
Ultimately and over time, American change in policy and the eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo by Congress will help the Cuban people. Cuba ceased to be a national security threat years ago. Therefore, the objective should be to help the Cuban people and to empower them to seek political and economic change on the island for themselves. President Obama’s change in policy is a good first step to helping the Cuban people realize it is up to them to grow their economy and make the structural adjustments – both economically and politically – that will keep young Cubans in their country and incentivized to reach their potential.
Having been to Cuba, I have seen firsthand that the Cuban people are ready and eager for change that is happening already. Cubans today are hopeful about the future in ways that they have not been in years, and they are quick to tell you that the agreement between President Obama and Raúl Castro to re-establish diplomatic relations has given them this hope. Despite years of anti-American indoctrination, the Cuban people are embracing Americans and are eager for more American tourists, investment, and opportunities that expanded trade and travel will bring. They are giddy that Obama’s shift in policy will eventually lead to the lifting of the embargo. One Cuban went so far as to say, “If Obama could be president in Cuba, he would be elected to succeed Raúl.”
Yes, the Cuban government wants to calibrate the rate of change and reform on their own terms. Yes, they want to maintain the benefits of the Revolution, which they consider to be education, health care, the social safety net, and cultural heritage, while carefully choreographing the succession from the “historical leadership” to the next generation of Cuban communists. But make no mistake – the tsunami of change is coming to Cuba. Indeed, time has chipped away at the fear the regime has over the Cuban people, and the forces in favor of change are great and growing. The desire for freedom is strong, the entrepreneurial spirit is palpable, and the groundswell of support for a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations is evident on the island.
There is no symbol more powerful than President Obama traveling to Cuba to demonstrate America’s commitment to and solidarity with the Cuban people in their quest for change and greater economic and political opportunity. With all eyes on his visit, he has the chance to call out the Cuban regime for its human rights abuses, to call for freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press in Cuba, and to be the champion for change that the Cuban people want. In going to Cuba, President Obama is not just making history; he’s on the right side of history.
Amanda Mattingly is a senior director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. Views expressed are her own.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque