Historic Visit by President Obama Marks New Era in U.S.-Cuban Relations

By Geraldine Cook
March 23, 2016

The three-day visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years, charted a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations, in what Barack Obama said was a ‘new day’.

U.S. President Barack Obama left Cuba on March 22nd, after a three-day visit to the island nation that marked the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. The historic visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, was a demonstration of the president’s commitment to chart a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations and connect U.S. and Cuban citizens through expanded travel, commerce, and access to information.

President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro both vowed, during a joint press conference on March 21st in Havana, to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the U.S. president called a “new day” for the long bitterly divided neighbors, AFP reported. Obama vowed that “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation.” That sentiment was echoed by Castro, who acknowledged “profound differences between our countries that will not go away,” but vowed to work on “those things that bring us closer”.

Speech to the Cuban people

On March 22nd, Obama earned repeated cheers and applause from the audience when he delivered a speech at the ornate Gran Teatro in Havana, which included Cuban President Castro, as millions of Cubans watched live on state-run television.

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people […] In many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers that have been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.”

“Creo en el pueblo cubano,” he said, then repeating himself in English: “I believe in the Cuban people […] This is not just a policy of normalizing relations with the Cuban government. The United States of America is normalizing relations with the Cuban people.”

Obama did not shy away from criticizing Cuba’s lack of political liberty, saying that the future would not depend on the United States but on homegrown change.

“I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, health care and food on the table, and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize and to criticize their government and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections. Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this. But I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.”

Each call for greater freedoms received applause, an extraordinary event in a theater where Castro and his officials sat watching.

Speaking to the peoples of the Americas, Obama said, “We’ve been a part of different blocks of nations in the hemisphere, and we will continue to have profound differences about how to promote peace, security, opportunity, and human rights, but as we normalize our relations, I believe it can help foster a greater sense of unity in the Americas. From the beginning of my time in office, I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past. We are in a new era.”

Immediately after the speech, Obama left to meet with dissidents who have been harassed and sometimes arrested under Castro’s rule including Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, and veteran activist Elizardo Sanchez.

Later that day, Obama and Castro sat side-by-side for a symbolism-laden game of baseball between Cuba’s national team and the U.S. Major League’s Tampa Bay Rays. The game reminded Americans and Cubans of their shared histories and cultural connections. While most of Latin America is football-mad, Cuba and several Caribbean islands have long followed the U.S. lead, adopting and excelling in baseball, perhaps the quintessential U.S. sport.

Changing course

After decades of failed Cold War policies, President Obama decided to change course, focusing on advancing American interests and values and supporting the ability of the Cuban people to gain greater control over their own lives and determine their country’s future.

On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba would begin a new chapter and take steps to normalize relations. Since then, significant steps have been made in opening up relations between the two countries. In August 2015, diplomatic relations were restored when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba to raise the American flag over the U.S Embassy.

An important part of the president’s trip to Cuba was to expand the people-to-people interaction and commercial enterprise. Today, more Americans are visiting Cuba than any other time in the past 50 years, and the warming of ties between the two nations is a big opportunity to advance progress in this area.

Since talks began between the United States and Cuba, the number of authorized American visitors to Cuba has gone up sharply, enabling increased people-to-people engagement. In February, the U.S. and Cuban governments reached an agreement that restored direct flights between the two countries, a change that eventually will allow up to 110 direct flights to Cuba from the United States each day.

The expansion in travel will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector and make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.

The warming of ties will also bring about important changes in the Cuban people’s access to information. Currently, Cuba has an internet penetration of about five percent, one of the lowest rates in the world. The cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high, while the services offered are extremely limited. Now, telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services.