The Start Of Something New: President Obama Visits Cuba

April 5, 2016

By Maggie Angel

On December 17, 2014 President Obama did something unprecedented. He announced in an address to the country that the United States and Cuba would start the process to renew diplomatic relations, after over fifty years of severed relations and a harsh embargo on the neighboring island.

The United States and Cuba have had a rocky relationship since the 1900s when the U.S. occupied the island in hopes of acquiring the territory after Cuba gained independence from Spain. However, the Cuban Revolution in 1958, led by Fidel Castro, created a socialist government that expelled U.S. interests on the island causing the rift between the two countries resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the embargo signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1960. The embargo has crippled the island nation economically by not allowing trade or travel between the U.S. and Cuba. In the 1990s President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act that imposed even stricter terms on the embargo including penalizing foreign companies that do business with United States if they also do business with Cuba. The goal of the embargo was to spark regime change from socialism to a capitalist democracy. Cuba has managed to survive all these years and continue to develop despite the obstacles imposed by the United States’ government. However, it does not mean the effects are not profound on the Cuban people. Cubans struggle with access to certain pharmaceuticals since many are manufactured in the United States. Also at the start of the Cuban revolutions, several refugees left for the United States and communication to the island is difficult since there is limited internet connection. Therefore, families have been separated with travel to the island being so difficulty.

But President Obama’s announcement marked a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. Instead of continuing the failed isolationist approach, Obama has decided that the best way to bring democracy and progress in the island is to engage the Cuban people and have personal contact with American values. Although he has faced a lot of criticism mostly from Republicans and even some Democrats, it has been received positively by most of the American people and the world. Cuba has diplomatic relations with the whole world and membership to the United Nations. Several resolutions have been brought to the United Nations General Assembly calling for the end of the embargo on Cuba, but also vetoed by the United States as a permanent member of the Security Council. It is time to join the rest of the world and be civil with one of our closest neighbor. Obama rightly stated, “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. Even if that worked, and it hasn’t for 50 years, we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

The road to restoring relations was not easy. Pope Francis was even involved in the negotiations leading up to the announcement in 2014. Since then, several steps have already been taken. Travel restrictions have been eased and airlines have been starting planning daily flights between the U.S. and Cuba and expanding departure points beyond Miami and New York. Diplomatic relations were official reinstated July 20, 2015 and both embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C. were reopened.

With all of these changes, the biggest event was President Obama visiting the island this past March together with a delegation of senators and congressmen including Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois as well as his family. It was the first visit of a U.S. president to Cuba in over 80 years. He met with President Raul Castro as well as civil society groups. He also walked around the beautiful tourist destinations of Havana Vieja and attended a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, which the Rays won.

Dominican also had a part of Cuba on campus at the same time Obama was on the island. Dr. Elena Diaz, professor at the University of Havana-FLACSO, visited campus on March 21 to give a lecture on modern Cuba and U.S.- Cuban relations. Her and Professor Christina Perez have worked together organizing study abroad trips for Dominican students to the University of Havana. These trips, one of which I had the opportunity to participate in last summer, give students the special opportunity to visit the island under an educational visa circumventing the travel restriction and immersing themselves into Cuban culture inside and outside the classroom. It is cultural exchanges like theses and political policy changes like those done by President Obama that exemplify the proper way of conducting diplomacy and advancing the interests of all parties. It is important to be close to the objective of a more secure world, especially during these times of fear and uncertainty. President Obama in his remarks in Cuba said, “’Cultivo una rosa blanca’ [I cultivate a white rose]. In his most famous poem, Jose Marti made this offering of friendship and peace to both his friend and his enemy. Today, as the President of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz [the sign of peace].”