On Cuba, Obama Calculates Others in U.S. Will Follow in His Path

President Obama in Cuba on Historic Visit, What's Next?
  • President's trip opens the way for businesses, tourists
  • Agentina stop emphasizes reset relations with Latin America

If the president can take his family to Cuba, other Americans will want to follow. And if blue-chip companies such as Google and Starwood are opening there for business, so will other companies.

More important than any diplomatic negotiation during President Barack Obama’s historic visit, are images from his visit that the administration says solidify public perceptions of the changed relationship with Cuba: Obama, the first lady, and their daughters among palm trees and vintage cars, taking in a baseball game and touring colonial cultural sites.

The visit for most Americans will end the “taboo” on a country that was long legally off-limits to most U.S. citizens and demolish remaining psychological barriers to travel to the island and do business there, said Representative Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who was part of the U.S. delegation with the president in Cuba this week.

It hasn’t removed -- though it may yet erode -- resistance from many other Republican lawmakers and some Cuban exiles to removing one of the last remnants of a hostile relationship: the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba imposed more than a half-century ago. While the thaw will continue after he leaves office, the president has acknowledged the embargo most likely will as well.

Cold War Remnant

The official purpose of Obama’s trip, which included a stop in Argentina, was to reset the U.S. relationship with Latin America and, in the president’s words, to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” There was a heavy dose of symbolism as well.

Residents of Latin America, where U.S. isolation of Cuba has been a constant irritant, saw Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro chatting amiably during a baseball game. At public appearances, Obama delivered tough criticism on human rights abuses without using a confrontational tone.

Putting punctuation on the idea that it’s a new era, he said the Cuban Revolution happened the same year his father came to the U.S. from Kenya and that the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred the year he was born, in 1961.

Paying Tribute

In Buenos Aires, Obama stood side by side with Argentine President Mauricio Macri Thursday to pay tribute to the thousands of victims of what is known as the Dirty War and said he regrets that the U.S. was too slow to speak out about the abuses of Argentina’s military government in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The night before, at a state dinner hosted by Macri, Obama was persuaded, after initially expressing reluctance, to engage in a brief tango with a female entertainer.

Some of those symbolic gestures, particularly coming after the terrorist attack in Brussels, drew criticism.

“Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the
day,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

Obama shrugged off the criticism. He said allowing terrorists to disrupt the work of building U.S. relationships in the world plays into their hands.

Castro’s Influence

The easy rapport Obama showed with Cuban President Raul Castro and the respectful treatment the U.S. president accorded his counterpart amplifies the impact of Obama’s opening to Cuba, said Jonathan Hansen, a senior lecturer of Latin American studies at Harvard University and a biographer of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Raul’s brother.

"Not every country loves Castro, but Castro is important in every country in the region," Hansen said. "He symbolized an absolute unwillingness to compromise on self-determination and sovereignty."

Obama’s statement that Cuba need not fear U.S. aggression and that both countries can learn from each other, will echo in a region that has often chafed at perceptions of U.S hegemony, he said.

“The symbolism of him saying you have something to teach us on the delivery of social services, health policy and education, is tremendous,” Hansen said. “That’s unheard of coming from an American president in recent Latin American history.”

Business Opening

In the U.S., the psychological shift that the trip accelerates, and a parallel one among corporate leaders, will render Obama’s opening to Cuba irreversible, Sanford said. It also builds an expanding constituency for dropping the embargo, he said.

The visit’s potential impact is all the more powerful coming just as the Obama administration has all but eliminated the bureaucratic obstacles to travel.

Though the U.S. embargo law still only permits travel to Cuba for certain purposes such as journalism, education or people-to-people exchanges, Americans no longer need to provide detailed itineraries or go through cumbersome processes. Instead, travelers simply check a box on a form indicating the purpose of their trip at the airport as they depart the U.S.

U.S. airlines also will begin direct scheduled flights to Cuba later this year, ending the inconvenience of having to fly on a charter flight or go through a third country. The airlines also will become a powerful corporate interest opposed to hindrances to travel, Sanford said.

Commercial Deals

The deal announcements coming from major companies timed to Obama’s visit also reduce anxieties over Cuba in corporate suites elsewhere. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. announced an agreement to operate three hotels in Cuba and make a multimillion-dollar investment to bring them up to Starwood standards. Google Inc. announced plans to open an online technology in center in Havana offering faster Internet wireless access.

General Electric Co. signed memorandums of understanding with the Cuban government on business collaboration amid reports it is exploring sales of power and medical equipment to Cuba.

The trip yielded formal accords such as a U.S.-Cuba agreement on agricultural cooperation and a plan for medical collaboration to combat Zika virus and cancer.

"It doesn’t have that immediate kind of impact, but things will change immeasurably moving forward,” said U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat on the trip’s congressional delegation.

As Obama was wrapping up his final day on the island, Becerra said the visit would be another turning point in U.S-Cuba relations.

"It’s removing the stigma of Cuba," Becerra said. "It means Americans can now talk about Cuba without talking about Cold War ideology and the Bay of Pigs and Russian missiles."

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