Learning from history: five years after Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba
Although he did not achieve all that he was pursuing with regard to Cuba, there is no doubt that Obama’s new policy opened a path of rapprochement with the island.
“The peoples who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”
Paul Preston, British Hispanic historian
Susan Rice, current director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Joe Biden administration, was the second and last National Security Advisor to Barack Obama between 2013 and 2017. Although she had no public participation in the negotiations or in the execution of what was agreed between Raúl Castro and Obama on December 17, 2014, she was involved in the decision-making process. In fact, in her memoirs she said that she was a supporter of the broadest possible engagement. Rice highlighted the importance of that agreement saying that the joy for this historic policy change and its flawless execution were the culmination of her term as national security adviser, adding that it also turned out to be a longed-for turning point and that after a year and a half of relentless challenges and very few clear triumphs, a success that was a marvel of the next to come had finally been achieved.1
In the first installment of his memoirs, “A Promised Land,” former President Obama acknowledged that advisers from two different generations coexisted in his administration. Some, like Hillary Clinton, were staunch supporters of Cold War belligerent positions; others, such as Dr. Rice herself (who was his Ambassador to the United Nations in the 2009-2013 period), or Ben Rhodes, the architect of the negotiations with the Cuban government, had gravitated towards his electoral campaign “precisely because I was willing to challenge the assumptions that we often called the ‘Washington Playbook’”; that is, a traditional way of looking at American national security. Among these forms he cited several examples: “the policy on the Middle East, our position on Cuba, our aversion to diplomatic dialogue with our opponents.”
This perspective helps to better understand two of the most controversial passages that the president used in his speech on March 22, 2016, five years ago, from the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana, broadcast live on Cuban national television . The first of these passages was:
And towards the end he reiterated that concept with a whole paragraph in which he expressed the same idea:
“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation. It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together, a future of hope.”
What he meant—and he repeated—is that he refused to view the Cuban issue with the confrontational attitude typical of the Cold War. It was an appeal to all. The fact that he said it in Havana did not mean that it was a phrase only for the Cubans who live on the island.
The dissenting reaction of many Cubans regarding this phrase is largely explained because the prevailing perspective among Cubans who live on the island is that the conflict with the United States has not been motivated by the Cold War, but by a long history of U.S. hostility toward the existence of Cuba as an independent nation.
Hence, many considered that the president’s reference was an unwarranted appeal for not knowing the history. However, these assessments ignored the references that the president himself made to his personal career and to the fact that he was aware that the United States had caused harm to the Cuban nation.
The dissenting reaction to those phrases ignored what was likely the central message of the speech, something that no pre-1959 president had ever said:
“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba. What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people. We will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model.”
That position was reiterated in the Presidential Policy Directive — United States-Cuba Normalization that President Obama issued on October 16, 2016:
“We will not pursue regime change in Cuba. We will continue to make clear that the United States cannot impose a different model on Cuba because the future of Cuba is up to the Cuban people.”
On the other hand, since he began in national politics, Barack Obama has opposed the economic blockade and has insisted that it should be lifted unconditionally. He thus ratified it until the end of his mandate, in the last speech of the State of the Union, on January 13, 2016 before a joint session of Congress.
If President Obama’s attitude towards Cuba was bold when deciding to reestablish diplomatic relations and visit Havana, so was Raúl Castro’s, who agreed to start the normalization process without previously lifting the blockade.
It is probable that the then Cuban president was guided by that warning of José Martí in his essay “Honduras and the Foreigners,” published in Patria on December 15, 1894, in which he referred to “Our America” but also to the America that is not ours, “whose enmity it is neither sane nor viable to foster, and of which with firm decorum and shrewd independence it is not impossible, and it is useful to be a friend.”
Although he did not achieve all that he was pursuing with regard to Cuba, there is no doubt that the new policy of President Obama opened a path of rapprochement with our country. In this sense, he issued a series of presidential orders that expanded the possibilities for economic contacts, although it must be recognized that they were insufficient when compared to the dense network of regulations that prevent them.
What followed the 2014-2017 opening is already known. Under the administration that succeeded him, most of what was agreed was reversed and 240 sanctions or unilateral coercive measures were adopted, even after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. There was also something that may have very negative repercussions: a substantial transformation in the state of opinion of citizens or residents of Cuban origin in South Florida, who went from supporting Obama’s policy to accepting and applauding the new aggressive sanctions and measures.
At the end of the first quarter of 2021, with Joe Biden in the high command of the White House, relations between the two countries are frozen and have not changed one iota from how the previous president delivered them, with several specifications It is worth remembering: unfairly, Cuba was once again included in the list of state sponsors of terrorism; under the pretext of the so-called “sonic” incidents, the staff of the embassies of both countries was reduced and the U.S. consular section in Havana was closed, which affects Cuban and Cuban-American families; Title III of the Helms-Burton Act was put into effect for the first time since its existence; and all the general licenses issued by President Obama as a method of making holes in the blockade were canceled.
The Biden administration has gone no further than stating that the measures taken by his predecessor are being reviewed, but that this is not a priority. Meanwhile, the debate on Cuba policy within the U.S. political system has intensified.
What lessons do these events leave us? I will suggest the following as hypotheses:
- The window of opportunity that opened with the new United States rapprochement with Cuba under Barack Obama was too short to allow time to substantially modify relations. Given the cyclical and, in some cases, seismic movements of U.S. domestic politics, any future opportunities must be seized by all stakeholders interested in normalizing relations. Given the prevailing obstacles, even a four-year presidential term might not be enough.
- In Cuba, particularly in the governmental milieu, there was no consensus in assessing the nature and significance of the steps taken by President Obama, including his visit. For many it was a change of methods, but not of purpose. For others it was an opportunity that had to be seized.
- Neither did certain sectors in the United States, especially among Cuban-American emigration, value the magnitude of the steps taken by the Cuban government.
- There was excessive confidence that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations would “reinforce” the established ties against any attempt to revert them. They had to be complemented with a greater economic linking, although it must be recognized that two years would not be enough. The hardest things to overcome are old mindsets and prejudices, especially after 55 years of virtually uninterrupted hostility.
- Even taking into account the above, it can be concluded that the economic possibilities offered were not used optimally. At this point it is valid that the economy has a decisive weight over the political. Stronger economic ties—among others—with sectors of emigration would have strengthened relations.
- There was an underestimation of the role that Cuban emigration could play and the importance of advancing in the relationship with it, considering it an integral part of the nation. This migration turned out to be very volatile. In 2016, substantial majorities approved of Obama’s policy and voted for Hillary Clinton. Undoubtedly, due to the prevalence of the Cuban anti-government discourse during the last four years, these majorities have been substantially eroded. It will take time and work, both from Washington and from Havana, to reverse that trend.
1 See: “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” p. 416.