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June 27, 2017

POTUS in Cuba?


This is what the First Official Tour visit to Cuba by an American President will look like:

  • A tour of Old Havana
  • A meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Cuban clergyman who played a backchannel role in Obama’s negotiations with the Castro government
  • Visiting an art museum
  • Taking in a baseball game with Cuban leader Raúl Castro. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays will play Cuba’s national team.
  • Delivering a televised speech to the Cuban people

If this sounds like the normal stuff of a state visit, that’s because it is.

Obama still hasn’t ended the American embargo on Cuba; only Congress can do that. Rather, he has relaxed specific trade barriers. What he has changed, successfully, is the American diplomatic approach that underpinned that embargo: treating Cuba as a pariah state, much like North Korea or Iran.

The new strategy is to work with Cuba rather than against it: to attempt to improve life in the country through negotiations and commercial ties rather than attempting to topple the communist government through isolation and economic pressure.

“His policy toward the island is, without a doubt, his boldest hemispheric initiative,” Susan Segal, the president and CEO of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, says.

“It chips away at a more than half-century-old embargo policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans, put US commercial interests at a disadvantage compared to those of other countries, and poisoned the US relationship with the rest of the continent.”

This has already had some effect. The number of Americans visiting Cuba increased by 77 percent in 2015, a figure that’s only likely to increase further as US airlines open up direct flights to Cuba.

“The arrival of so many visitors … represented a boon for all manner of Cuban-owned small businesses in the island’s services-focused cuentapropista (or self-employment) sector,” said a PhD student at Yale who studies Cuba.”

Obama’s trip to Cuba is a way of building on these accomplishments. If the US and Cuba do normal activities like state visits, then this signals to the populations of both countries that the era of unremitting hostility is ending.

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