The Limits of Obama's Trip to Cuba

Going my way?

Photographer: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

With all due respect to Mick and Keith, a Rolling Stones concert is no longer a life-changing experience. Nor is a visit from a U.S. president, necessarily. Change in Cuba -- where these two events are scheduled for successive days next month -- depends most of all on the Cuban government.

QuickTake Cuba-U.S. Reboot

President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba on March 21 is not, as its critics contend, a vote of confidence in President Raul Castro's government. It is simply an opportunity for Obama to acknowledge both the successes of his policy and its limits.

More than a year after the normalization of ties began between the U.S. and Cuba, there are tangible signs of progress. Commercial flights and ferry service from the U.S. will soon resume, bringing even more American travelers to Cuba. U.S. cellular companies now provide service on the island, and Internet access has improved. The first U.S. factory on Cuban soil in more than half a century will soon open. And serious talks have begun on issues such as investor protections, telecom regulations and environmental protection.  

Like the hundreds of millions more dollars in U.S. remittances now lifting the fortunes of ordinary Cubans and fueling small businesses, these developments can have a powerful cumulative effect. For one thing, they raise popular expectations and put the onus for change squarely on Cuba's government. Moreover, even with the embargo intact, a visit from a hugely popular American president may help to convince the Cuban people that the U.S. is no enemy.

So you can expect an eloquent speech or two. But soaring rhetoric about free expression is meaningless without support for those who depend on it to criticize the Castro regime, which has increased its persecution of them. Obama can also help his credibility by recognizing that, for most Cubans, daily life is much as it was. The government retains overwhelming control of the economy.

Bringing about positive change in Cuba won't be quick or easy. And a lot of what counts as change in Cuba is something that came to the rest of the world a long time ago (see: Stones, Rolling). But recent developments in Latin America -- Chavismo's crackup in Venezuela, the election of a new president in Argentina, and the cease-fire in Colombia -- make change in Cuba more likely. So, too, will Obama's trip.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.