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Latin America

Spring Break in Havana, Obama headed to Cuba

When President Barack Obama visits Cuba next month it will be the latest step in what critics say is a fruitless effort by Washington to woo Cuba’s communist leaders
18 Feb 2016 – 07:02 PM EST
Cuba Crédito: Getty Images

By David Adams @dadams7308

When President Barack Obama visits Cuba next month it will be the latest step in what critics say is a fruitless effort by Washington to woo Cuba’s communist leaders.

The first U.S. presidential trip to the Caribbean nation in 88 years may not bring about immediate change in Cuba, but supporters of the two-day visit say its symbolic value should not be underestimated.

"I think the President's historic trip to Cuba can have a tremendous ripple effect - both on and off the island,” said Felice Gorordo, 33, a Cuban American entrepreneur who formerly worked in the Obama White House. “There is no doubt a visual of the President walking through the streets of Havana and interacting with ordinary Cubans will have profound impact - in Cuba, Miami and throughout the region."

Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, private sector entrepreneurs and dissidents during the trip on March 21 and 22, the White House said on Thursday.

The announcement of the visit comes barely 14 months after the two countries agreed in 2014 to open talks to restore diplomatic relations, ending decades of hostility following Cuba's 1959 revolution.

The White House had made no secret of Obama’s desire to visit Cuba before leaving office. Even so the March date was something of a surprise after administration officials had said previously they were waiting for Cuba to take more concrete steps to improve relations.

Obama’s busy schedule in his last year in office left little room for Cuba, according to sources close to the White House. The mid-March dates coincide with Spring Break, though the White House has so far only confirmed that the First Lady Michelle Obama will accompany the president, while leaving open the possibility their teenage daughters will also join them.

After the historic Dec 17 2014 accords the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to relax restrictions on commerce with Cuba, as well as travel to the island. But Cuba’s leadership complains the U.S. trade embargo has not been lifted and appear reluctant to reciprocate by opening the island’s economy to U.S. companies, or softening the harsh treatment of political dissidents.

“I sense a lot of frustration in the White House and the State Department that Cuba is dragging its feet on just about everything the administration is pushing," said Alfredo Balsera, a Cuban American Democrat and political consultant who has raised funds for Obama.

Crucial party Congress

The Cuban Communist Party is gearing up for a crucial party Congress in April which is due to set the political guidelines for the next five years. “Obama’s visit will be very opportune,” said Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group in Miami, and a former executive at CIMEX, Cuba’s largest state-run commercial corporation. “The party has so far given no sign of plans to discuss reforms,” he said, noting that it will be Raul Castro’s last Congress before leaving office in 2018.

White House officials stress the new Cuba policy is founded on a firm belief that a pro-active approach, rather than waiting for Cuba to change, is more likely to produce results.

“Put simply, U.S. Cuba policy wasn’t working and was well beyond its expiration date. Cuba’s political system did not change,” Ben Rhodes, the president’s Deputy National Security Adviser, explained in a blog post on Thursday.

White House officials urge a patient, long term approach, focused of healing relations between the two countries as a first step. “Cuba will not change overnight, nor will all of the various differences between our countries go away,” added Rhodes.

Polls seem to favor Obama’s strategy with public support for re-establishing relations with Cuba increasing since the 2014 accords.

Miami’s Cuban American community remain divided over the new Cuba policy and oppose the trip, joined by two candidates in the Republican presidential race, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both sons of Cuban immigrants.

Rubio urged Obama to reconsider his trip, citing political arrests made during the past year. “You will send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors," he said on Thursday.

Sign of weakness?

Many analysts agree that pro-active moves by the United States, seen by some as a sign of weakness, in fact result in putting more pressure on Cuba’s leaders to reform.

“Reducing tensions deprives the regime of the national security argument they have used all these years,” said Richard Feinberg, a former national security advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton who now teaches at the University of California, San Diego. “It makes it easier to create an open space for civil society and it puts additional pressure behind the reforms.”

Feinberg said Obama’s trip has a two-pronged objective, to persuade Cuba’s leaders that they need to do more to win support in Congress to lift the embargo, as well as reaching over their heads to the Cuban people. “The public are going to love and embrace the Obama family. They are going to go nuts,” he said, noting that Cuba’s population is almost 50% black or mulatto.

The trip is sure to produce images that will captivate a worldwide audience, such as the President’s bulletproof Cadillac, known as “the Beast,” driving through Havana.

"For Cubans accustomed to watching their government sputter down the last mile of socialism in a '57 Chevy, imagine what they'll think when they see Air Force One," said Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona.

In hemispheric terms the trip will also put the seal on the Obama administration’s efforts to rebuild relations with Latin America after battling almost two decades of leftwing populism.

In Cuba, Obama will tip his hat to the role its government has played in hosting peace talks to end the decades-long war in Colombia. Obama will then head to Argentina to embrace conservative president Mauricio Macri, whose election last December was a blow the leftwing Latin American political bloc ALBA (Latin American Bolivarian Alliance).

“We are witnessing the busting up of ALBA, there’s nothing left,” said Feinberg. “We are in a new era of US-Latin America relations,” he added.