TOPICS > World

What does Obama’s historic visit mean for Cuba and the U.S.?

February 18, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
President Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge, according to a Twitter announcement Thursday. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on the latest in a series of moves to normalize relations with the communist state, and Judy Woodruff talks with William LeoGrande of American University for more on the implications.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On March 21, President Obama will make Cuba the first stop on a trip to Latin America. It will be an historic moment that comes 14 months after Cuba and the United States announced renewed diplomatic ties.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, begins our coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: It will be the first visit to Cuba by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. President Obama announced the plans on his official Twitter feed today.

And Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes outlined the goals.

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Adviser: We see it as a means of pushing forward this normalization process, trying to achieve a greater opening between the United States and Cuba commercially, but also supporting and advancing the values that we care about.

MARGARET WARNER: The visit, including talks with Cuban leader Raul Castro, follows more than a year of work to thaw relations. Embassies reopened in both countries, and the two nations this week agreed to start daily commercial flights.

But these moves toward normalization haven’t produced results as quickly as hoped. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, meeting Cuba’s trade minister in Washington this week, complained that, despite Washington easing restrictions on U.S. companies wanting to do business there, Havana hasn’t done the same.

Rhodes echoed that today.

BEN RHODES: What we would like to see is that they are taking the types of steps that allow those regulatory changes to take hold, that allow U.S. businesses to start to be able to operate in Cuba in ways that benefit the Cuban people.

MARGARET WARNER: Cuba argues the U.S. is to blame for lack of progress, as a top Cuban official underscored today.

JOSEFINA VIDAL, Cuban Foreign Ministry (through interpreter): Of course, to achieve fully reestablishment of those bilateral relations, outstanding issues would have to be resolved, including the lift of the embargo and the return to Cuba of the territory occupied by a Naval base in Guantanamo.

MARGARET WARNER: Congress is refusing to lift the trade embargo and the White House said today the U.S. position on retaining Guantanamo has not changed.

Human rights also remains a point of contention. Rhodes said today that Mr. Obama will meet with civil society activists during his visit. But leading Republicans urged him not to go at all.

Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants, spoke in a CNN town hall last night.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: There’s no elections in Cuba. There’s no choice in Cuba. And so my whole problem, I want the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to change, but it has to be reciprocal. And so, today, a year and two months after the opening of Cuba, the Cuba government remains as repressive as ever.

MARGARET WARNER: Even so, the White House said lawmakers from both parties will accompany the president.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We explore the historical significance now with William LeoGrande. He’s a specialist in Latin America at American University. He’s written a number of books on U.S.-Cuban relations.

And welcome back to the “NewsHour,” Bill LeoGrande. Good to see you.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE, American University: Thank you. Good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How big a deal is this visit by the president next month?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Well, I think it’s historic.

And I think, as we look back on it, we will see that it’s as significant as Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which was really the symbolic break in the old policy and a policy — a new policy of engagement with China.

In the same way, this trip by President Obama is symbolic of the fundamental shift that he made in U.S.-Cuba policy back in December 2014.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what real changes do you see? We know, as Margaret just reported, that the embargo, the trade embargo still exists. There is, what, any sign Congress is ready to look at that again?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Well, not this year, because we’re in the middle of an election year, but next year, I think there is a real opportunity to revisit it.

There are a lot of Republicans who are pro-business and whose constituents would like to be able to gain access to the Cuban market. And I think that — and there are a lot of Democrats, of course, who have been in favor of a new policy toward Cuba for a long time. And I think there is the makings of a coalition once we get past the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in the meantime, what do we look for as changes in the U.S.-Cuba relationship? We know the president’s tried to do a few things. Are they making any difference?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Well, I think they are.

We have already seen agreements on a whole range of issues of mutual interest, civil aviation, the restoration of postal service, environmental protection. I think we will see more agreements in the next 11 months on other issues of mutual agreement, particularly in the law enforcement area.

And we’re also seeing a lot of new commercial interests and a lot of businesses going down there, trying to see if Cuba offers a real opportunity for business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as I understand it, it’s still a narrow slice here and a narrow slice there.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: The embargo is still really important.

And until the embargo is gone, we’re going to be playing at the margins, if you will. But, nevertheless, the regulatory changes the president has made in the last year have really opened up a number of business opportunities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we just heard Senator Marco Rubio say, we’re talking about an oppressive government.

How much change, if any, has there been in Cuba’s human rights record?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: There’s been very little change on the human rights front. And the Cuban government is no more tolerant of dissidents today than it was a year ago.

But the problem with that criticism, it seems to me, is that, for 54 years, we pursued a policy of hostility and coercion to try to force Cuba to behave better and become more democratic, and it didn’t work. So, it seems to me that the president deserves at least more than a year to try to see if his policy will make a difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You started out comparing this to Nixon’s visit to China. What do you see? I mean, what do you think the U.S.-Cuba relationship could like five, 10 years from now?

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: Oh, I — Cuba and the United States are really natural partners. If we go back historically, Cuba and the United States had a very close, integrated cultural relationship, an economic relationship.

The problem from the Cuban side was that the United States dominated the island politically. But if we can engage at the political level with mutual respect, respecting Cuba’s independence, there are all kinds of opportunities for cultural exchange and economic development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is despite the fact that the Cuban leadership is still very critical of the United States in many ways.

WILLIAM LEOGRANDE: They are very critical of the United States, but they tend now to be more critical of specific U.S. policies, like the embargo and our presence in Guantanamo, as opposed to the across-the-board denunciation of the United States that we used to hear a few years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor William LeoGrande of American University, we thank you.