President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba was a historic event. No American president has been to the island-nation since Calvin Coolidge made the trip in an American battleship in 1928. Cuba has been under a dictatorial communist regime since 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have come to the United States seeking refuge and a new start on life. The Cuban government has been an oppressive regime for decades. The country has been a mess economically, politically, and diplomatically.
The president was sharply criticized by many for initially going to the trip and then when the terrorist attacks on Brussels occurred, he was criticized for not leaving Havana and returning to Washington.
I can understand why many thought that he should have returned to the US. Brussels is the defacto capital of the European Union as well as NATO. They’re a close ally and deserve the full attention and concern of our people. However, it would’ve been a huge success for ISIS if they would have cut the presidents trip short to deal with this crisis. That’s what terrorism is all about – disrupting our every day lives so that we succumb to fear.
I believe that President Obama’s trip and subsequent restoration of relations can potentially help to alleviate the plight of the Cuban people by engaging them diplomatically and economically. I loved that we brought elements of democracy to the island. I personally enjoyed seeing Raul Castro squirm and react angrily to a question about political prisoners held by his regime. “What political prisoners?” he said. “Give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have [them], they will be released.” The fact that the press was able to ask questions like this was a win for the freedom of press.
Bringing attention to the issue of human rights in Cuba was a clear objective of the administration. That question on political prisoners would never have been asked if President Obama wasn’t on that stage with President Castro. Exposing Castro to genuine media scrutiny was a wonderful sight for the Cuban people to see.
We have have had a policy of isolation towards the nation of Cuba for the last fifty years and it’s proved to be a failed endeavor. We have to find common ground with Cuba. We have to change the narrative that the United States is the evil empire and enemy of the Cuban people.
The Obama administration is banking on the hope that greater U.S. engagement will yield to political breakthrough for the Cuban people. Raul Castro is 85 years old (certainly no spring chicken) and the hope is that as the US and Cuba normalize relations the more likely it is for a leader to come to power that would be willing to hold legitimate democratic elections.
I believe that the President is doing the right thing, but it’s a gamble. There is historical precedent for a trip like this. The visit to Cuba is comparable to President Richard Nixson’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Up until that point we had not recognized the government of China for nearly 25 years. There was an incredible amount of enmity and hostility between us and China (Chinese support of the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese are prime examples). While Nixon’s objective wasn’t meant to politically change the communist country, he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did make significant gains that paved the way for strong economic ties that are still present today.
President Ronald Reagan vigorously engaged with our arch enemy (the Soviet Union) during his tenure in office. He bolstered our military forces, shored up our alliances, and engaged with the Soviet Union. In 1988 he took a trip to Moscow and met with Mikhail Gorbachev and signed a Nuclear Arms Treaty. Reagan had his classic saying, “trust, but verify” when it came to dealing with the Soviets. In other words, engage with them, work with them, but be cautious and not naïve.
I think we need a, “trust, but verify” policy with Cuba. We need to have metrics and benchmarks for the Cuban government to make as the US brings in greater investment and economic opportunity for the Cuban people. President Obama declared that the economic embargo will end. However, he did not share when the oppression and persecution of political dissidents will “end” in Cuba. And frankly, the Cuban government gave no concessions for political and economic freedoms.
I can only imagine how difficult it is to engage with people whose ideology and philosophy is diametrically opposed to yours, but I also believe that it’s important to start talking and engage in diplomacy. My hope is that normalization of American – Cuban relations will yield to greater individual freedom for the Cuban people. What’s the alternative? Another 50 years of isolation?
I’m Harold Dorrell Briscoe. Thanks for reading.