At the start of the year there was a lot of speculation on whether President Obama would crown his historic rapprochement with Cuba with an equally historic visit to the island. The guesswork is over with today’s announcement of his trip next month.
Many things have changed in the last year in the relationship between the United States and Cuba: diplomatic ties have been restored, the leaders of both countries have met twice, dozens of commercial flights per day have been authorized, hundreds of thousands of Americans are travelling to the once-forbidden island, and many economic sanctions have been lifted.
And yet there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the repressive nature of Cuba’s Communist dictatorship. If anything, things might be getting worse. The Miami Herald’s columnist Andrés Oppenheimer recently reported that the number of self-employed workers in Cuba has actually dropped in the last six months. Arbitrary detentions of peaceful opposition activists are on the rise. Economic reforms are still too timid. If there is a lot of enthusiasm about Cuba lately, it has to do more with what Washington is doing than what Havana is actually delivering.
This is not to say that Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba has failed: Washington’s previous policy of isolating the island was utterly counterproductive. But we should not kid ourselves about an imminent change of the nature of the Castro regime.
President Obama has said that his trip’s main objective will be to “improve the lives of the Cuban people.” If so, he should follow the steps of Jimmy Carter when he visited the island in 2002: the former president met with dissidents and was allowed to address the nation uncensored in a speech on national TV where he called for democratic elections, respect for human rights and greater civil liberties.
If Obama fails to get similar concessions, his trip will only boost the standing of the Castro regime. It will be all about cementing his legacy and not about trying to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.