Fifteen months ago, President Barack Obama reversed the United States’ 50-year policy of isolation toward Cuba. On Monday, he stepped onto Cuban soil – the first time for a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
After a historic handshake and one-on-one meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, President Obama planned to meet with Cuban entrepreneurs on Monday and human rights activists on Tuesday.
But the trip, meant to solidify the diplomatic embrace, was viewed as controversial to some Cuban-Americans. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said in exchange for U.S. rewards, the Cuban government hadn’t reformed at all. “The Castro regime continues its oppressive and recalcitrant policies.”
“It’s very frustrating because it’s like the United States has moved a mile and Cuba has not moved an inch,” said Miami mayor Tomas Regalado Jr.
Even leading up to the historic trip, the Cuban government was rounding up activists and harassing reporters, Carla Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the NewsHour. “It is not a free democracy there by any stretch of the imagination. But then, there are a lot of countries with which we have open trade and diplomatic relations that are also repressive countries.”
Part of the thinking behind the U.S. policy shift was the more the Cuban people are open to the world, the more they will realize how out-of-step their government is to the rest of the world, Robbins said.
The U.S. benefits by getting to step back from a failed policy of isolationism and try something new, she said. Of late, it was the U.S. government that was beginning to feel isolated in the region.
“The president was under a great deal of pressure from close allies in Latin America (to accept Cuba), and we were the odd country out. Everybody else was dealing with the Castro government,” Robbins said.
Business-minded politicians, farm boards and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce consider Cuba an untapped market, even though some think Cuba would benefit more economically from the diplomatic thaw than the U.S. And people see Cuba’s potential as a tourist destination with what Robbins deems a Studio 54-esque red velvet rope vibe.
“It’s got a coolness factor. You couldn’t get in, so everyone wants to go in,” she said.
But most of all, what many people hope the U.S. gets out of the deal is a “soft landing” when the Castro era ends, Robbins said. Over the years, many have wondered post-Castro, “Were we going to see hundreds of thousands of Cubans getting on rafts and coming to the U.S. as we did see during the Mariel era?”
For six months in 1980, the Castro regime opened the Mariel port and allowed Cubans to leave for the U.S. A total of 125,000 Cubans fled to U.S. shores, overwhelming the U.S. Coast Guard.
With relaxed restrictions on travel and trade, the boundary between the two countries is not going to seem as high, she said. “The hope there is to encourage mid-term reforms so eventually there will be a transition and a soft landing. We have a strong national security and economic interest to not have Cuba implode.”
In addition, the U.S. is removing something from Cuba by improving ties, Robbins said. “We’re taking away an excuse — the ability to blame the United States for all of their failings.”