Obama's Move on Cuba

What to Make of the Historic Trip

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro as they hold a bilateral meeting during the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In February, shortly after the White House announced U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 21-22—the first of any sitting U.S. president in 88 years—a meme began circulating on Cubans’ Facebook feeds. In it, Obama confidently throws down the winning piece in a dominoes game against the leading Republican presidential candidates at the time, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. The caption reads, “Se pegó,” which translates roughly to “Gotcha” or “Checkmate.”

Critics who decry Obama’s visit to Cuba, including Cruz and Rubio, might be in the minority, since opinion polls reveal that the U.S. public is largely supportive of the move. But this image of the president confidently scoring geostrategic points contradicts a more complex reality on the ground. In some respects, the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement is still tenuous, and Obama’s visit is necessary to give a boost to a process plagued by fits and starts.

Many Cuba watchers I know did not expect the president to travel to the island so soon. In December, Obama told Yahoo! News in an exclusive interview that he would go “if the circumstances were right . . . if in fact I can with confidence say we’re seeing some progress in the liberty, freedom, and possibilities for ordinary Cubans. . . . I’m not just interested in validating the status quo.” Certainly, Cuba has become a more dynamic place with the influx of Americans and other visitors since last year. But much of the country’s economic and political architecture has remained unchanged since the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 2011. At that time, President Raúl Castro’s government solidified its commitment to slowly decentralize the country’s Soviet-style economy by loosening some restrictions on private business. Additional advances, however—such as an end to the island’s dual currency system—have been promised but have not yet materialized. (New migration and foreign investment laws, approved in 2013 and 2014, respectively, are important

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