By Madeline Merrill
For the past eighty-eight years, United States and Cuban relations have been anything but cordial. Since the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, Cuban leadership has warily observed American happenings in the expectation that the United States will attempt another forceful overthrow of the Castro-led communist regime.
But on March 20, 2016, President Obama was the first American president in the eighty-plus years since the escalating international tensions prompted by the Cold War to step foot on Cuban soil. Michelle and Barack Obama landed at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport and stayed in Cuba for a total of three days.
The visit was pointedly political--Obama visited with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, met Cuban residents, ate in a privately-operated restaurant (as contrasted with previously governmentally-run restaurants). Sources cite that Cubans lined the streets for just a glimpse of the Obama family.
Obama detailed his visit as a living example of the power of international diplomacy. He states, "This is a matter of us engaging directly with the Cuban people and being able to have candid, tough conversations directly with the Cuban government...we will have more influence and have greater capacity to advocate on behalf of the values that we care about when we're actually talking to them."
However, American political leaders Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz openly object to continuing Cuban-American dialogues. Both cite this loosening of international political sanctions as rewarding a ruthless regime that continues to oppress its people and stifle Cuban residents in a perpetual state of inhumane poverty. In contrast, the Pew Research Center cites that “Fully 63% of Americans approve of the Obama administration’s decision last month to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 50 years.” Regardless of these divisive opinions, economic sanctions between the United States and Cuba still exist--Congress, and not President Barack Obama, is the only political entity capable of formally lifting these fifty-year-old economic embargoes.
Other onlookers cite this visit as the opportunity for continued dialogues between the two nations, rather than the pinnacle or prime of any international exchange. There is much work to be done--but arguably, this visit by President Obama puts the two countries a step in the right direction.
Fidel Castro, former dictator of Cuba and elder brother of current leader, Raul Castro, immediately authored an opinion editorial following Obama’s stay in Havana. Kejal Vyas of the Wall Street Journal writes of Fidel Castro-- “[Fidel Castro] slammed Mr. Obama for omitting the role of indigenous populations when the U.S. leader lauded the contribution of African slaves to the development of both countries. Mr. Castro also criticized Mr. Obama for failing to recognize the revolutionary government’s policies to eradicate racism. In Africa, Mr. Castro said, Cuba aided liberation movements in countries like Angola and Mozambique while the U.S. backed the apartheid government of South Africa.”
Regardless of these splintered reactions, this historical visit prompts the beginning of what appears to be a developing relationship between the United States and Cuba. Castro’s written message arguably fell on deaf Cuban ears, as public opinion in Cuba demonstrates that Cubans are supportive of ushering in this new era with America. This is just one of many exchanges--America appears to be extending a steady gesture of goodwill towards our neighbor 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
Madeline Merrill is a 2017 MPP candidate at the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She serves as a Staff Writer for the Third Rail blog.