When President Obama travels to Cuba on Sunday with his family, he is making a vital foreign policy statement, and not just about the small island off the tip of Florida. The bigger principle at play is the value of diplomatic engagement over isolation, cooperation versus Cold War thinking. The visit — the first time a sitting American president has been to Cuba in almost 90 years — is a manifestation of the hope that democratic ideals can spread over time once normalized relations are established.
Obama will not only be meeting with President Raul Castro, but also with middle-class Cubans, entrepreneurs, and political dissidents, a symbolic yet reassuring move on behalf of democracy and fairness. Already the opening of relations is bearing fruit, with new businesses sprouting and a flourishing tourism industry taking root.
The Obama administration has relaxed travel restrictions, making it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, and has allowed Cubans to open US bank accounts. Nonstop flights between the two nations have been restored and for the first time in 50 years direct mail has been reestablished.
Yet there’s more work to do. The trade embargo still stands as a major obstacle, a politically charged issue that only Congress can fix. Entrepreneurial success in areas like the tourism industry and commercial development, along with more political tolerance in Cuba, will go a long way toward helping to lift the embargo.
Indeed, the ball soon will be in Cuba’s court, and its political posture, especially toward dissidents, will be an important element in maintaining the momentum. Critics of Obama’s new policy of rapprochement contend he didn’t ask enough concessions from Cuba in return, giving the dictatorship the better end of the deal. But isolating Cuba has proved to be a failed endeavor. It was supposed to cripple the Castro regime and undermine the Cuban economy but it has instead created a useless artifact from the Cold War. The embargo has been effectively used by the Cuban government to maintain a self-serving narrative: blame the US for everything. It was time to try something different and Obama delivered boldly. To allow business to flow, slowly but surely, is the best bet for bringing about positive change in Cuba.
“Economic exchange can be a potent political force,” said Richard Feinberg, a former senior Clinton administration official and expert on Cuban economic reform, at a recent hearing before Congress on the opportunities of trade with Cuba. “This makes more likely the advancement of fundamental US interests: the peaceful transition to a more pluralistic and prosperous Cuba, to a Cuba more open to the world, where the new normal is the free flow of goods, services, capital, and ideas.”
Cubans on the island seem to agree, and are hoping that the renewed relations won’t be dissolved by a new administration. Indeed, the next president would be wise to embrace Cuba, which, if Obama is right, will evolve into a good neighbor rather than a thorn in the side.