Obama in Cuba: Is this a right time?

We are going now and trying to get some business done, said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes re Cuba’s visit of President Barack Obama. Would you say time is right or not for President Obama to visit Cuba and if the White House is trying to get some business done what should be Obama’s focus? Read few comments

W. Alejandro SanchezInternational Security Analyst

President Obama has less than a year left in office, hence he does not have much time left to finish putting U.S-Cuba relations in a direct path forward. He has already done as much as he can without resorting to Congress to lift the embargo (since the Republican Party controls the U.S. Congress, this won’t happen). He made the historical speech on December 17, 2014, embassies were restored last summer 2015 and now he will be the first U.S. president to visit the Caribbean island in decades.

Apart from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has three Latin American countries as members (Peru, Chile and Mexico), restoring relations with Cuba has been the other major aspect of President Obama’s strategy towards Latin America and the Caribbean. In other words, to cement his legacy towards the Western Hemisphere, he cannot afford to wait any longer to continue restoring relations.

As for the focus of the trip, let’s be honest, it would be illogical for President Obama to make promises about trade, as the embargo won’t be lifted, or Guantanamo, as the U.S. will not return the base to Cuba. He will probably discuss the importance of improving “people relations,” by relaxing the travel embargo, and how the two governments can fight towards common goals, such as combating transnational crime (like drug trafficking) in the Greater Caribbean.

Certainly, there are other issues that President Obama has to address like the situation in Syria or internal U.S. politics with the nomination of a new judge to the Supreme Court, however when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations, the time “to get some business done” is right now, because President Obama is running out of “tomorrows.”

Sebastián Arcos, Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University

Many, including the editorial boards of many important newspapers in the US such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Miami herald, believe that the President’s trip to Cuba is hasty and should have been conditioned on the Cubans reciprocating the many changes implemented by the US so far, particularly in the human rights area. The Obama Administration is making a desperate attempt to broker a few important business deals with US companies to cement the policy changes implemented since D-17-2014. Despite these changes, US companies have been reluctant to move because the Cubans have not implemented any changes in their absolute control of the island’s economy, and the legal framework continues to be convoluted and arbitrary.

Instead of having a business focus, the Presidential visit should concentrate instead on the need for the Cuban regime to implement real political and economic changes  in response to the US opening. As the transitions in Central Europe proved, political changes are more important to galvanize progress than economic changes, and should precede them.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska Omaha

Each American President wants to leave a legacy, whether it be in domestic or international politics. Obama is no different, and he has found, he believes, in improving relations with Cuba, a means of leaving a meaningful and lasting legacy. It is important for two reasons. First, it perhaps marks the end of nearly 60 years of animus between these neighbors. Cuba poses no threat to the national security interests of the United States, and Cuba has shown a remarkable growth in regional and international stature in medical diplomacy and leadership at a time when it is much needed. In spite of the lingering issues (expropriated properties, human rights, and Guantanamo), Obama will have significantly cleared a path for further normalization between these neighbors. Secondarily, the Congress will be responsible for the complete dismantling of the embargo given the requirements of the Helms-Burton Law of 1996. He will have done everything possible under his presidential prerogative to improve relations and he leaves it to the next Congress and President to do so. What will be telling is the American response to Raul Castro’s departure in 2018.

For him the timing could not be better. The American public is wrapped in electoral politics at the moment and it leaves Obama with significant degrees of freedom to advance his Cuba initiative to the fullest extent possible. If it does indeed prove to be the catalyst for more changes on the island, that will be great. But Cuba has changed significantly and will continue to change. The question is, how much does the United States want to be a part of that change?

Victor Bulmer-ThomasProfessor, Associate Fellow, Chatham House

The timing is good and Obama has faced very little opposition in the US. However, they are in for a disappointment if they are hoping for a big change from the Cubans. On the contrary, it is the Cubans who want big changes from the US (trade embargo, return of Guantanamo etc.) and so they are unlikely/unwilling to meet any demands from the US unless their own demands are accommodated. This, unfortunately, is not something Obama can deliver.

Antoni KapciaProfessor of Latin American History, Director, Centre for Research on Cuba, University of Nottingham

The time is certainly right from the United States’ point of view. Obama is clearly trying his hardest to get a momentum on Cuba well under way, in order (a) to ensure that it survives him and even a Republican presidency and/or Congress, and (b) to undermine the embargo (which he clearly wants to end but cannot for political reasons). He’s in that period of any presidency before the elections, when the outgoing president is not yet a ‘lame duck’, so he’s taking advantage of that time to make as many changes as he can and create a mood for more permanent change, that an incoming president/Congress can’t ignore. And this visit is easily the biggest gesture that he can make, since the December 2014 declaration.

But that’s largely what is still is, of course – gestures (given the embargo’s political and constitutional status). Important gestures, and possibly influential in the US (though less so in Cuba, other than helping the mood there).

To be honest, I suspect that Rhodes is ‘whistling in the dark’, as I can’t see any likelihood of real security discussions between the two countries (after all, they have been going on behind closed doors for many years – on drugs, migration, security cooperation). He may be referring to talk of human rights, but, as he knows, there have been enough changes in that respect in Cuba (with repeated releases of dissidents, freedom to travel, and an easing of pressure on access to the internet and so on) to mean that there’s little scope for further changes of any substance on the Cuban side – let’s face it, they are not going to agree to competitive elections or anything like that. Basically, the dissidents are not a threat to the government or the system, and never have been, but the Cuban leaders know (from Nicaragua in 1990) that, if they allow too much space to an opposition, the US will get involved and unbalance the political system. And the US can’t afford an unstable Cuba, despite their talk of pressing Cuba on human rights and democracy. So I suspect it’s all talk and no substance, but there will be a few dramatic and symbolically important gestures.

In fact, the biggest ‘business’ for the US is bound to be getting access for US commercial interests before the embargo is finally ended (still a few years off?); the recent announcement of Starwood’s unprecedented deal with 2 Cuban hotels suggests that the visit is going to be a symbolic event with the hard negotiations on things like that already underway.

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