US President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to Cuba, starting tomorrow, is an historic moment, aimed at sweeping away half a century of frozen relations between the two countries.
It is the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, and one intended to advance US efforts “that can improve the lives of the Cuban people”, Obama had said when he announced plans for the trip last month.
The two former Cold War adversaries have progressed in opening relations since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014 that they intended to restore ties.
Both have reopened embassies in the other’s capital and announced plans to restore flight service between the nations.
Yet that progress is “insufficient”, Obama felt, which is why he is travelling in person.
Obama and Castro last met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.
Obama’s visit comes in the heat of a contentious presidential campaign in the US, and just a week after the Florida primary.
And in an encouraging sign, Cuba made a rare gesture of reciprocity to the US on Thursday. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Cuba would remove a 10% tax on cash dollars in response to Washington’s decision to relax stiff currency restrictions - but only after testing the new freedom to trade in greenbacks.
US banks can now process dollar transactions for Cuba as long as neither buyer nor seller are US entities, the latest dent to a US sanctions regime dating back to 1960.
But Rodriguez said Obama could offer much more without going to Congress, which must approve any end to the embargo imposed three years after Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew a pro-American government in 1959.
But Obama’s critics say he has conceded too much without concessions on rights or multi-party democracy in the Communist country.
On Thursday, the White House said Obama sent a reply to a Cuban well-wisher called Ileana R Yarza on the first direct US mail flight to Cuba in half a century.
“I hope...Obama tries, as much as is within his powers, to remove the embargo before he leaves office,” Yarza told Reuters. She said she celebrated Obama’s 2008 election, but described the embargo as a “black page” in US history.
Obama does recognise the failure of the trade embargo that has been in place since 1960. Thus, he has pragmatically decided to abandon trying to compel Cuba’s leaders to change their political system. After all, if the US had set a political opening in Cuba, or even a modicum of respect for human rights by the government, as a precondition for normalisation of diplomatic relations, the two countries would still be at an impasse.
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