Welcome to Habana, Señor Obama

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For over half a century the visit of a US President in Cuba could have been considered only in terms of political science fiction. When Barack Obama landed at the airport in Havana, he not only did symbolicly end the period of cold war between the two countries, but has also very clearly shown what are the main objectives of his foreign policy. The presidential visit is the high point of the ongoing for a year US-Cuba relations which have been reinstated in December 2014 after the conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro.

What until few months ago might have seemed as political science fiction, has finally happened on March 21, 2016. At 4:29PM of the local time the presidential Air Force One with the entire Obama family on board (including the mother-in-law of the President) touched the ground of the Jose Martia airport in Havana. Just like that.

As Obama has noted in his first speech delivered on the island to the employees of the US embassy, the last time a US President has visited Cuba was back in 1928 – the then in office Calvin Coolidge arrived in Cuba on the board of a military ship and the entire journey took him three days. Of course, the means of transport chosen is not the only difference that makes the Obama’s visit “historic”.

For the first time in the history of the bilateral relations of the two countries, the President of the United States came to Cuba with a concrete agenda which is not aimed at imposing own political goals. Obama believes that the times of such a narrative are already over but it managed to build high walls while at the same time it did not bring the desired results. To support this opinion the President emphasizes that each of the next ten presidents of the United States exercised the policy of confrontation that led to the abolishment of Castro’s regime. This is why one of the key assumptions of his political doctrine of foreign relations is the belief that a political change (involving implementation of democracy, multi-party system, the free press) cannot be imposed from the outside, especially by using force. Obama believes that liberalization of the economy and direct relations of the US citizens with the island will lead to real bottom-up changes. This is why he does not intend to change the political system neither in Cuba, nor in Iran. He is, however, deeply convinced that by imrpoving the lives of “average” Cuban or Irani citizens directly, he will be able to introduce the so-called bottom-up changes. In other words: the more trade relations and direct interactions between the citizens of the United States and the nations which as to now remained in a political isolation, the easier it will be to democratize those societies. In this respect, Obama’s policy seems to be even more focused on long-term results and on creating the foundations of the further emergence of civic societies in those countries.

In the case of Cuba, the visit of the President of the United States is the high point of the ongoing for a year US-Cuba relations which have been reinstated in December 2014 after the conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro what marked the end of the cold war between the two states, which lasted for over half a century. Since then the US and Cuba have re-opened their embassies and Washington removed a number of restrictions which were blocking the trade with the island and prevented travel. Despite all this, the economic embargo on Cuba was still not lifted (it may be done only by the US Congress), and the Cuban side still does not want to allow the US occupation of Guantanamo.

The Obamas’ visit has provoked in Cuba an increased activity of special services which paid their visits at the homes of dissidents informing them that any sort of activity during the residential visit will result in an immediate arrest. Following the warning, just a few hours before Obama landed, around 60 activists had been arrested during a traditional Sunday march organized by Ladies in White. Most of the detained people were released already in the evening of the same day. A few of them – including the President of the Ladies in White, Cuban human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez and a famous blogger Yoani Sanchez – were to meet the President of the US on March 22.

Obama is well aware of the fact that he embarks on a journey in a country where human rights are being violeted. Already in December 2015 he cautioned the Cuban authorities that if the situation does not improve, he will be forced to cancel the visit. Although Havana ignored the pressure coming from the White House, Obama’s visit did take place. According to one of his advisors, Ben Rhodes, Washington wants “the normalization process to be irreversible”. Obama knows that he has only ten months left and that his successor might be a Republican. This is why he intends to introduce changes which will be difficult to reverse by the next administration.

For this reason, he is faced with harsh criticism from right-wing experts who claim that the presidential visit could be easily interpreted as a form of legitimization of the political situation in Cuba. Elliot Abrams, an old-timer of the Bush administration, deemed Obama’s actions inappropriate and does not agree with the comparison between Obama’s visit to Cuba and the visit of Richard Nixon’s to China in 1972 or Bill Clinton’s to Vietnam in 2000. Depreciating the importance of the visit to Cuba, Abrams is not really right, according to my estimations. The visit of Barack Obama truly is a historic event if we take into account the troubled relations of both countries and the fact that Cuba, even though it is a small country, managed to hold a strong position in the political agendas of few consecutive presidents of the United States as compared to much bigger countries. This is because the island remained a bastion of a left-wing revolution in the region right under the nose of the Big Brother and still acts as the Mecca for the left wing, and the “bearded hero of Sierra Maestra” is to this day the “king of revolutionaries”. Therefore Fidel Castro, in order to emphasize that Cuba is still a key player on the map of the global left-wing movements, a day before Obama’s visit had met at his house with Nicolas Maduro, a Venezuelan continuator of the activities of Hugo Chavez.

According to Peter Kornbluh, the Cubans themselves believe that by visiting Cuba Obama somewhat legitimazed the revolution. What matters for the US President is the “direct influence” on the inhabitants of the island, which accompanies his visit. This task may prove not as difficult as it may seem if we take into account the fact that he landed in one of the strongholds of his supporters, where his only competitor for the hearts of the Cubans is the Pope. As Kornbluh points out, “What matters the most for the White House is building cultural, economic and political bridges that will enable the US political system to enter the insland”. Cuba is, after all, still proud of the revolution and the US President will have to respect this while building his bridges.

The article was originally published in Polish at liberte.pl

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz