Opinion / From the Press

Obama's Cuba visit is intertwined with cheers and skepticism

By Zhong Bu ( Updated: 2016-03-21 11:22

Obama's Cuba visit is intertwined with cheers and skepticism


While President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba is being cheered in Havana, the trip spurs skepticism among his opponents on the Capitol Hill.

The White House announced that Obama will visit Cuba for 48 hours starting on March 20 before he visits Argentina on March 23-24. During the trip, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, Obama will meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro and Cuban business leaders. The visit aims to create "new opportunities for U.S. businesses and travelers to engage with Cuba, and we want the Cuban government to open up more opportunities for its people to benefit from that engagement," Rhodes said.

Rhodes also stressed that Obama will press Cuba for more reforms that will benefit both Americans and Cubans. Some significant advancements have been made, "still, this progress is insufficient," he added. Obama himself twitted about his Cuba trip: "Next month, I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people," he said on Twitter, adding that he is having concerns on Cuba’s human rights records. "We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world."

In Havana, Cuban people are cheering for the first sitting U.S. president’s state visits to their country for the first time in more than 80 years. Local people love to welcome more American tourists and see tourism dollars pour in. But in Washington, Obama’s Cuba visit seems "appalling" to Republican members of the U.S. Congress.

Interestingly, the toughest opponents to the visit are the Congress members with Cuban ties like Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are also this year’s Republican presidential candidates. Besides Cruz and Rubio, six other Cuban Americans currently serve in the U.S. Congress, all bitterly opposing their president’s Cuba trip.

Cruz, whose father came to the U.S. from Cuba, said Obama shouldn't visit Cuba when it is still under the control of the Castro family. Rubio urges Obama not to visit the communist nation until it is free.

Rubio’s parents are Cubans who immigrated to the United States in 1956. In his campaign speech, Rubio told his supporters, "I will tell you the problem with the Cuban government. It’s not just a communist dictatorship, it’s an anti-American communist dictatorship. They are a repressive regime. There’s no election in Cuba. There is no choice in Cuba."

Both the United States and Cuba started to seek normalized diplomatic relations in 2014. Since then, Rubio said, “the Cuban government remains as oppressive as ever. But now they have access to millions if not billions of dollars in resources they didn’t have access to before this opening.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who is a member of Obama’s party and his parents are also Cuban immigrants, criticized Obama’s trip is ceding U.S. leverage to the communist nation 90 miles south of Florida. U.S. Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Havana, simply called Obama’s visit "absolutely shameful."

Other opponents say Obama’s state visit will deliver few benefits to U.S. businesses but bring more American visitors and cash to Cuba. They see the president’s visit could hurt any further improvement on Cuba’s human rights front. Some supporters for Obama’s Cuban policy concern that without entrenched interests backing up the new policy, there’s not much to stop a Republican successor from rolling back what Obama is trying to do now.

The current U.S.-Cuba relationship seems more favorable to the Cuba side, at least for the moment. In coming months when U.S. businesses could not gain more from the relationship, Obama will have a hard time pushing the Congress to list the trade embargo on Cuba. The coming trip should provide Obama an opportunity of pressing Cuban leaders to open up more opportunities for U.S. businesses. This will surely deliver sustainable values to Cuban people and businesses in the long run.

In addition to the rocky U.S.-Cuba economic relations, both supporters and opponents of Obama’s Cuban policy share concerns on Cuba’s human rights situation. The Obama administration assumes American people that the United States pursues normalization, but serious differences remain unchanged with the Cuban government, in particular on human rights.

It is clear to the Obama administration that the key to the normalization between the two countries is lifting the decades-long U.S. economic embargo. Obama believes such a move would improve Cubans’ economy and human rights, but he could not do it without the support of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Republican leaders in the Congress said they would not approve a formal lifting of the embargo and pledge to block the president’s nomination of an ambassador to Cuba. Instead, they prefer to let the next president decide how to develop U.S.-Cuba relations.

For now, the U.S. government plans to add more commercial flights to Cuba so that more American tourists can legally visit the largest island in the Caribbean. American airlines may fly as many as 110 flights a day to Cuba, a good news to those airlines companies. Still, it means little to other U.S. companies. Since 2014, more U.S. companies are allowed to export to Cuba, but not many are making money because of the slow opening up in Cuba. In some sectors, the business goes worse, for example, American food and agriculture exports to Cuba dropped significantly in 2015 than a year before.

Facing the challenges, Obama still won many Americans’ support for his Cuban policy as historic lessons demonstrate that the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has done little to nudge the nation on the path to democracy. The isolation policy brought nothing good to the United States, either.

It is true that conservative and older Cuban-Americans are resistant to working with Cuba. But younger generations of Floridians, as recent polls show, are softening their views toward the country, and prefer to engage with Cuban people. The engagement is also supported by Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, arguing that moving toward normalizing relations and lifting the trade embargo should serve the U.S. national interest.

Since the future of U.S.-Cuba relationship pretty much depends on who is moving into the White House next year, Obama, a lame duck in the election year, could hardly achieve much on his historic visit to Cuba.

Illustration by Robert Wiggin

(The author, Dr. Zhong Bu, Associate Professor from College of Communications, Pennsylvania State University)

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