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Why the significance of Obama’s trip to Cuba differs for both countries

March 20, 2016 at 4:01 PM EDT
Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, joins Alison Stewart to discuss President Obama's historic visit to Cuba and the new era of U.S.-Cuba relations.

ALISON STEWART: Wheels down in Havana for Air Force One, as Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge almost 90 years ago. It was raining as the first family got off the plane, to be greeted by Cuba’s foreign minister.

While still on the plane, President Obama tweeted: “Que bola, Cuba?”, or “What’s up, Cuba” in Spanish.

The president will spend a busy two days on the communist-ruled island nation, which has been preparing for his visit.

Only eight months after the flag was raised at the reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba, for the first time in more than half-a-century, the streets of Havana are decorated with American flags and images of President Obama.

The president and the first family are beginning their Cuban visit with a walking tour of historic Old Havana tonight. Mr. Obama will meet tomorrow with Cuban president Raul Castro and attend a state dinner. the president has no plans to meet with former President and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, older brother of the current president.

But he does intend to spend time on Tuesday with critics of Castro’s government, many of whom have faced arrests for their outspoken opposition.

The White House would not disclose which dissidents Mr. Obama will see, but insists the list is not negotiable.

JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: But I can tell you that the president is going to move forward and host meetings and have a conversation about human rights with the people that he chooses to meet with.

ALISON STEWART: This afternoon in Havana, police arrested dozens of anti-government dissidents from the so-called Ladies in White group. The president will also deliver a speech at the National Theatre of Cuba, where he plans to lay out his vision for how the two countries can work together.

He will also catch a baseball game between Cuba’s national team and the Major League Tampa Bay Rays. And in a video released online by the White House yesterday, the president joked with Cuba’s most famous comedian, Luis Silva, who often satirizes the failings of the Cuban government and economic system.

Earlier, I spoke with Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, about this new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Christopher, this has been described as a largely symbolic trip, but we don’t go to all this work for just symbolism. What else is there to it?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI, Professor, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs: Well, first of all, there’s the issue, and for both cases, of legacy.

Raul Castro and his older brother, Fidel, have ruled Cuba since 1959. They’re not going to live forever. They’re both in their 80s. Fidel will turn 90 in August.


CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: So they have got to sort of — they want to see some elements of the revolution preserved. And the revolution has not been successful, particularly on the economic front.

It’s brought some social benefits, but there’s a fair amount of frustration. On Obama’s side, he wants to turn the page. He doesn’t want to have Cuba and U.S. relations with Cuba frozen in the Cold War. He has engaged in a series of reforms through executive orders that could be rolled back if another president comes into power.

But he wants to preserve that legacy as well, so symbolic, but very important.

ALISON STEWART: His critics have said that some of his — his approach to Cuba foreign policy, they use words like naive and dangerous?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Well, danger, definitely not. Cuba is not a national security threat to the United States, despite some claims.

But he has — I mean, he is trying to engage with Cuba and a government that really does not sort of abide by basic human rights standards. And so a lot of his critics are arguing this is another example of President Obama’s foreign policy, that he is sort of weak-kneed before despots.

But Obama is betting that, particularly in the case of Cuba, a country 90 miles off the coast of the United States, in which there are two million Cuban Americans, two-thirds of them in Florida alone, that that sort of flow of dialogue and exchange is going to build sort of, if you will, the foundation for longer-term political change that, you know, is more important than whether you engage in a grudge match with the current regime or not.

ALISON STEWART: Will the president of the United States talk about human rights?

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: First of all, it is important that human rights have not changed in Cuba.

A little over a year ago, the president announced a series of executive actions to loosen the embargo, and Cuba has not budged. While we have normalized relations across a number of fronts — we now have embassies in each other’s countries — Cuba has not budged on human rights.

In the last month alone, over 1,400 dissidents and human rights activists were rounded up and briefly detained.

So, what will happen? I think he is going to talk to the dissidents. I think you’re going to see a meeting in the U.S. Embassy with dissidents, human rights activists. He’s going to meet with entrepreneurs as well.

But I think, most importantly, what he will be doing is just really engage in a public speech that will be broadcast live nationally, in the National Theatre. I think, there, you will see him start to talk about Cubans’ aspirations for a different life and for closer relations with the United States, and human rights and political freedom being part of that.

ALISON STEWART: Christopher Sabatini, thank you so much.

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: Thank you very much.