Symbolic, an effort to burnish his legacy and prevent his Cuba policies from being reversed once he leaves office, a chance to nudge Cuba toward more openness, or simply ill-conceived and a reward for the Castro regime.
Whatever you think about President Barack Obama’s Sunday through Tuesday trip to Cuba, it clearly provokes strong emotions.
It’s the culmination of a process that began in mid-2013 with secret talks about freeing U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba, and a group of Cuban spies jailed in the United States and then morphed into a rapprochement between the two countries. They broke off relations on Jan. 3, 1961, after a year in which Cuba seized U.S.-owned properties and became increasingly cozy with the Soviet Union.
There have been many historic moments since Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that not only Gross and the spies would be going home but that the United States and Cuba had agreed to normalize relations.
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Embassies in both countries have reopened, there have been five sets of new trade and travel regulations by the United States that chip away at the embargo, commercial airlines are vying to offer 110 flights daily to Cuba, and a direct flight carrying mail and parcels landed in Havana on Wednesday for the first time in decades. The two sides also meet regularly to discuss topics such as migration and environmental protection.
There have even been meetings on contentious issues like human rights and U.S. claims for confiscated property but the former adversaries have a long way to go on both. Although the United States has eliminated many barriers to doing business — about as much as it can with the embargo still in place — Cuba has moved much more slowly.
In a news conference Thursday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez criticized a number of the new U.S. regulations for not going far enough. Despite the new relationship, he said there’s no way that internal changes in Cuba are on the negotiating table. He said if the United States really wants to benefit the Cuban people, it would lift the “blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo.
“This trip cannot just be a victory lap,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “There is much more to be done on the island and with relations with Cuba.”
The president has said that among the issues he plans to discuss with Castro is how to make it easier for Cubans to access the Internet and start their own businesses. About 500,000 Cubans are currently self-employed but regulations don’t allow professionals such as lawyers, architects and engineers to set up their own practices.
The president also has said he plans to bring up democracy and human rights, including “universal values” such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion.
In a letter he wrote to the Ladies in White, a group comprised of the wives and children of past and current political prisoners that has been critical of the shift in Cuba policy, Obama promised to speak about their human rights concerns and an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
“I will raise these issues directly with President Castro. The U.S. believes that no one in Cuba or anywhere else should face harassment, arrest, or physical assault just because they are exercising a universal right to have their voices heard,” Obama said in his letter to the Ladies in White.
Although the numbers of short-term political detentions fell shortly after the rapprochement was announced, they began to accelerate by mid-year and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Conciliation reported 8,616 cases of arbitrary detentions in 2015, compared to 8,819 the year before. Most of those were short-term detentions of a few hours or a few days. But the upward trend has continued with more than 2,500 detentions in the first two months of this year.
During the trip, Obama also plans to speak directly to the Cuban people, including members of Cuba’s civil society and entrepreneurs. That outreach will be closely watched in both Miami and inside Cuba. He will meet with dissidents Tuesday during a civil society roundtable at the U.S. Embassy.
Obama has made it a point to meet with civil society groups and dissidents on previous international trips, including in countries with repressive governments such as Burma, Malaysia and Russia. The meetings are generally closed to the press, but Obama often makes remarks to the groups in public, underscoring U.S. support for human rights.
“We'll continue to engage the government to provide more space and more opportunity for freedom of the press, freedom of association, rule of law, transparency and accountability,” he said in Burma in 2014, after meeting at the embassy with representatives of a variety of groups.
For former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, the idea that the Obama administration reforms, which are designed to help the Cuban people economically, are not related to human rights is “a false perception.” Respect for private property, the ability to earn a living on one’s own and the right to provide for a family are among the most precious of human rights, he said.
“I think we should focus on those Cubans now able to work in the private sector,” he said during a recent seminar at the Atlantic Council. “We’re talking about 500,000 people. We have the ability to help them economically and we should do it.”
But some exiles say the president’s main focus should be democratic elections and voting. Meeting and having his picture taken with Castro won’t help the Cuban people, they say.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is among those who think the president’s trip is misguided and only serves to validate the Cuban regime. She’s also critical of the administration’s business-oriented outreach. “The White House continues to grasp at regulatory straws to see what else it can concede in advance of the president’s trip to Cuba to promote more funds going in the pockets of the regime,” she said.
The Miami-based Cuban American Bar Association also sent Obama a letter criticizing the one-sidedness of the president’s engagement and said he had conferred “significant political and economic benefits” on Cuba without getting anything in return. “Since December of 2014, things in Cuba have only gotten worse for the Cuban people,” the letter said.
In response to a question about legitimizing a government that hasn’t been democratically elected, Obama told CNN en Español: “I think that view is naive and is contradicted by the facts, and we've seen more progress over the last year, year and a half on ... slow and incremental, but real changes in terms of how the economy works inside of Cuba. My view is that this is the beginning, not the end, of what is going to be a journey that takes some time.”
Plus, the president said, engagement has stripped Cuba of the excuse that the reason the government couldn’t provide greater freedom for its people “was that the heavy-handed neighbor to the north was preventing them, or sabotaging them.”
In some ways, the trip is all about optics from the crack of a baseball bat as the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban national team — a game that is on the presidential agenda Tuesday — to which dissidents show up at a meeting with him at the American Embassy.
“Obama is absolutely right to promote engagement, but not as an end in itself,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “His message on human rights needs to be forceful and specific, or the trip may be remembered by Cubans who have suffered half a century of repression as little more than bonding over baseball.”
But businessman Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said “the mere presence of President Obama in Cuba will be powerful. You have the young African-American president and leader of the free world and an aging white leader of a system that is tired and worn-out.
“This theme of contrasts will be an important one in this visit,” said Saladrigas, who was part of a group of Cuban Americas to meet with Obama on Wednesday.
Even though the United States and Cuba were Cold War adversaries, the Cuban people still feel an affinity toward Americans and an affection toward Obama. A 2015 poll by Bendixen & Amandi found that 80 percent of Cubans had a positive view of Obama. Seventeen percent viewed him negatively, compared to 48 percent who had a negative opinion of Raúl Castro and 50 percent who said they had a negative view of Fidel Castro.
Saladrigas said he hopes the Cuban people will be encouraged by Obama’s visit. “Expectations beget expectations and hope begets hope.”
The presidential trip may also make Cuba more of a campaign issue.
Among the surviving presidential hopefuls, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is the most pro-embargo. He has called the Obama rapprochement to Cuba “unconditional surrender.”
Regardless of who sits in the White House in 2017, “I don’t think there will be a groundswell for reversal” of Obama’s Cuba policy, said Michael Klein, a Tufts University professor who says what the United States really needs to do is find a way to help Cuba rebuild its financial system.
But for Jose W. Fernandez, a Cuban-born lawyer and former assistant secretary of state, the Obama visit is clearly designed to stave off the possibility: “I think what the president is trying to do is cement his policies by doing as much as he can to create facts on the ground so it will be much more difficult to reverse them.”
For that, Fernandez said, the president will need outreach, trade deals and “something that shows his policy has taken root so that it would be painful to reverse it.”
With the trip, Obama hopes to build constituencies in both countries for his Cuba policy, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And coming before Cuba’s Seventh Party Congress, where political and economic directions for the country are defined, he may also hope to nudge Cuba toward more openness.
McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.