HAVANA, Cuba – In the most concrete sign of warming relations between the United States and Cuba, President Barack Obama has announced that he will be making a historic visit to the island nation, the first for a sitting US leader since 1928.
In a White House press release, the US government announced that “President Obama and the First Lady will travel to Cuba on March 21st and 22nd” as part of a two-nation trip. After the visit to Cuba, the Obamas will continue on to Buenos Aires where a meeting will be held with newly-inaugurated President Mauricio Macri.
“In Cuba, the President will work to build on the progress we have made toward normalization of relations with Cuba – advancing commercial and people-to-people ties that can improve the well-being of the Cuban people, and expressing our support for human rights,” the press release continued.
“In addition to holding a bilateral meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, President Obama will engage with members of civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life.” In contrast with most other leaders that have visited Cuba in recent years, Obama is not set to meet with former leader Fidel Castro.
“This historic visit – the first by a sitting U.S. President in nearly 90 years – is another demonstration of the President’s commitment to chart a new course for U.S.- Cuban relations and connect U.S. and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce, and access to information,” the release concluded.
Indeed, the last (and only) visit by a US President to Cuba was made in 1928 when Calvin Coolidge attended the 6th Conference of the Pan-American Union, the precursor to today’s Organization of American States (OAS) in Havana.
Despite a lack of official visits, the respective leaders of Cuba and the United States have seen much of each other in recent months. In Panama, the two men spoke privately during the 7th Summit of the Americas in April of 2015. Just months later in September, they crossed paths again in New York City at the United Nations General Assembly.
This third meeting in less than a year, however, has a different flavor as it will not be held on neutral territory. It is unsurprising, however, given that Obama has previously (and repeatedly) stated his desire to visit Cuba as relations warmed before his presidential term expires in January of 2017.
His attempts at rapprochement with Cuba have earned him criticism from some sectors at home, notably from politicians and organizations that say relations should not be restored until the Cuban government changes its one-government policy and improves its record on human rights and political prisoners.
To that end, Obama and the White House have said that despite the visit, they will continue “pushing for the defense of human rights” on the island, and that the US President will be meeting with dissidents during his time in Havana.
On the Cuban end, the news of Obama’s future visit was greeted warmly.
Josefina Vidal, the General Director of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry for the United States, confirmed the visit of the US leader. “The President of the United States will be welcomed by the governent of Cuba and its people with the hospitality that characterizes our nation,” she said.
The visit “will serve as an opportunity for President Obama to view Cuba for what it is” in a way that is not possible without stepping onto its territory. The visit will also “allow the continuation of exchanges concerning the possible future expansion in bilateral dialogue” and the strengthening of “bilateral cooperation concerning mutual themes,” Vidal explained.
Like the US officials who voiced their concerns about certain issues with the island’s policies, Vidal highlighted “outstanding” issues that the US needs to resolve in its dealings with Cuba, including the “lifting of the embargo” and the “territory illegally occupied by the US Naval Base in Guantánamo,” in order to reach a point of full normalization in bilateral relations.
Despite the issues, she was upbeat: “This visit will serve as another important step toward improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”
Vidal explained that the occasion will serve to “confirm the will of the Cuban government to continue in the construction of new relations with the US,” relations “cemented in respect of the differences and similarities derived from the historical, cultural and familial ties that have united our two nations and peoples.”
In response to a journalist’s question concerning disagreements over human rights, Vidal said that “Cuba, as we had reiterated on numerous occasions, is open to discussing any theme with the United States.”
This includes the “topic of human rights, on which, of course, we share different views and conceptions, as we do with democracy, political models and international relations, to name a few.” Vidal said that the two nations have “touched on several themes, including human rights” during discussions held recently as relations warmed.
The announcement for Obama’s visit comes over half a year after another monumental breakthrough was reached. In July of 2015, Cuba hoisted its flag above a stately mansion in Washington, D.C. for the first time since 1961 and the US returned the favor a month later as the Stars and Stripes were raised in front of an imposing building Havana’s famous Malecón seawall.
With two short ceremonies in both nations’ capitals, the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US were re-established 54 years after then-US leader Dwight Eisenhower severed the ties shortly before he left office in late January of 1961.
Prior to the progress made recently, the US and Cuba, only 140 kilometers (90 miles) apart, had a very tense relationship set along the backdrop of the Cold War. Initially, Eisenhower cut formal diplomatic ties after Washington disagreed with former leader Fidel Castro’s economic and social policies that he instituted following the victorious uprising he led in 1959 against the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Eisenhower said after cutting diplomatic links that he “hoped” that the “historic friendship” between the two nations would be restored soon, most likely because he expected Cuban leader Fidel Castro to step down under heavy US pressure (or an invasion like the Bay of Pigs) or die from repeated US assassination attempts. Over half a century and 11 US Heads-of-State later, those diplomatic links were finally re-established and so were the respective embassies.
At the behest of Pope Francis, diplomatic relations were restored; the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis wrote lengthy letters to both Presidents Obama and Castro urging them to solve their issues for humanitarian reasons. The pontiff welcomed delegations from both countries to the Vatican in October of 2014 in which he tried to foster a “constructive dialogue on sensitive issues in the hopes of finding mutually satisfactory solutions,” an urge that the sides apparently took seriously given the results seen in the time following.
Economic reasons were also certainly taken into consideration by Washington as the European Union, China, Brazil, Russia and others recently became engaged with Cuba in economic-centered negotiations concerning multi-billion dollar projects, and if the US did not move quickly in normalizing relations, they would be left out of any possible future investment opportunities on the island.
This will play prominently in the coming months as many US business associations and organizations have urged the end of the embargo and notably, Penny Pritzker, the US Secretary of Commerce, will be traveling to Havana with Obama next month.
A prominent talking point, which Vidal brought up, will certainly be that same embargo. Cuba, along with every other nation in the world besides staunch US ally Israel, are asking for the embargo on the island nation to be lifted. The embargo, instituted in 1960, targets commercial, economic, and financial aspects of US-Cuba relations, which included the US threatening to cut off ties with countries who dealt with Cuba at one point.
The Cuban government has blamed the embargo for many of the more troubled aspects of the national economy and development and wants to see it lifted. On the other side of the coin, detractors of the Cuban government in the US have also asked the embargo to be lifted so that, as they say, Havana could stop blaming the embargo for its government’s own economic shortcomings.
In this instance, however, President Obama’s personal feelings cannot play a role as the embargo can only be lifted by a congressional action, not by a presidential decree. A divisive issue such as the embargo will certainly not be discussed in the heat of the electoral season currently taking place across the US, meaning that Obama and his delegation will likely not seriously discuss any actions concerning the embargo during his visit.
As Vidal mentioned, the Cubans also wish for the eventual return of the land and coastline that currently houses the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (and the notorious prison) on the eastern coast of the island.
A chunk of territory and coastline some 120 square kilometers (45 square miles), the area has been leased to the US since 1903 under an agreement which Cubans say was made under extreme pressure, a fitting assertion especially since the the lease is for “as long as necessary” and Washington pays less than $5,000 a year for the territory through loopholes. The US has occupied the area since it invaded the island during the Spanish-American War (1898).
Indeed, both nations have hailed the progress made, and with good cause, but the process will surely continue to move at a slow pace given the long history and demands made by both sides at hand.