Reflections on President Obama’s Trip to Cuba

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US Interests Section in Cuba, March 2014 – currently the US embassy  – photo by author

If you will all indulge my passion for U.S. – Latin American relations, I would like to reflect on what President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba means for diplomacy and international relations here in the Western Hemisphere. As you know, it has been almost 90 years since a U.S. Head of State has traveled to our neighbor, just 90 miles south of our nation’s most southern tip. It is also no news to anyone that our two nations have shared a very complicated relationship dating back well into the 19th century. In addition, our diplomatic relationship has been almost entirely cut off for 54 years (We maintained a United States Interests Section in Havana through the admirable diplomacy of the Swiss). In December 2014, Presidents Obama and Castro announced to the world a new era in U.S. – Cuban relations, in which the two nations would reengage and break down the only current Cold War policy still explicitly in effect. It was a historic moment that demonstrated to the world the United States’ commitment to working harmoniously with our counterparts in Latin America.

President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, and more broadly the reestablishing of diplomatic ties with the island nation, is extremely important not only for our relationship with Havana, but actually, it has ramifications for our relationships across Latin America. It is important that we recognize this fact. This isn’t only about Cuba. The Latin American region has expressed quite vociferously its discontent with the United States’ policy toward Cuba. Opening these diplomatic ties not only enhances our opportunity to engage in a productive and healthy relationship with Cuba, but it also enhances our reputation in Latin America, demonstrating our commitment to sit down and work with other nations even when we do not agree with their policies or forms of government. Obama’s approach on Cuba is another example of the administration’s implementation of what I would call restorative diplomacy. This new policy will encourage solid relationships in the region and even provides the U.S. with significant leverage to one day encourage positive change in Cuba, a change that has the potential to come about without holding Cubans’ lives hostage with an ineffective and harmful trade embargo.

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photo by author, Cuba March 2014

This new relationship shows promising signs for cooperatively achieved medical advancements as Cuba is internationally recognized for its exceptional training in medical science. There will be further opportunity for economic development on the island through increased U.S. tourism as well as the expansion of business partnerships. More importantly, there will be more intercultural exchanges for both Cubans and Americans, which can have extremely beneficial impacts on how we see one another and how that influences our lives and realities in the future. When barriers are broken down, the opportunities for mutual understanding become even more plausible.

Early on March 22, President Obama addressed the Cuban people with an encouraging message about what the future may hold for both countries. First, he stressed the importance of recognizing that the Cold War is over and that it is time to move past the differences between both countries, significant they may be, and work toward fostering a new relationship that focuses on the future. Second, he put Cuban minds at ease by indicating that the United States has no intention on imposing its will over the Cuban government or its people, an important move in addressing the legitimate Cuban concern of what our intentions are at this point in time. Third, President Obama expressed his faith in the Cuban people, more specifically and importantly the Cuban youth, to determine their path forward on the political front, supporting the narrative that governments should be in place to serve the will of the people, not the other way around. Fourth, Obama highlighted some of the key differences between both the United States and Cuba, using it as a platform to explain how the United States is not perfect, but that the ability to freely address the imperfections is what gives the opportunity for the U.S. to become greater and greater. Overall, his address to the Cuban people was one that carefully balanced serious criticisms of Havana while recognizing the strengths of Cuban people and culture. Some may criticize his lack of attention to human rights while on this visit however it is important to consider that we are just reengaging with Cuba and it will be important to very strategically build trust between our nations in order to engage in even more serious dialogue.

Even though Cuba might not have the most open society both politically and economically, I am of the opinion that the only way that we may effectively work with our Cuban counterparts on encouraging enhancements in their modus operandi, should they want them, is by being at the negotiating table. The only way to ensure influence is through earning mutual respect – failing to acknowledge each other’s existence because of a difference in ideology does not achieve this end. Obama’s visit to Havana is very symbolic and plays off of his stellar popularity on the island to serve as an exceptional form of soft power. This visit has the opportunity to move a new generation of Cuban’s who may, or may not be exhausted by their current form of government. The United States will continue to serve as a beacon of hope, democracy, and many of the other ideals that make up our identity, and we have to allow ourselves to engage with Cuban people, both government officials and civil society, to share our histories and cultures. We can both learn from each other. It’s not a one-way street. We must continue to have the very difficult conversations, but by engaging in intelligent, twenty-first century diplomacy!

This is a very beautiful moment in world history and international relations. The power of U.S. diplomacy has been showcased to the world. Congratulations to President Obama, the U.S. Department of State, and President Castro on this exceptional step forward. It is important to recognize the difficult challenges ahead, but I feel that there is more to be optimistic about than not.

Eric Salgado is a first year graduate student completing his Master of Arts in Latin American studies with a concentration on human rights and conflict resolution. He is from East Haven, CT and completed his BA at Fairfield University. He is a recipient of the 2015 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship through the U.S. Department of State. His international experiences include travel and study in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba and Mexico. His research interests include U.S. – Latin American relations, statelessness in the Dominican Republic, and police brutality in Brazil.  

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