Sec. Gutierrez on the significance of President Obama's trip to Havana

Obama Hopes Cuba Visit Can Be Harbinger of Political Change

BY: Julie Hirschfeld Davis I March 19, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama and his family will arrive in Cuba on Sunday afternoon aboard Air Force One and receive a red-carpet welcome from a country that has been a bitter adversary of the United States since before he was born.

He will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro; watch Cubans and Americans face off in a baseball game; and deliver a televised address in the historic theater where Calvin Coolidge, the last American president to visit, spoke 88 years ago. He will meet with entrepreneurs and dissidents, Cubans who have found ways to challenge the status quo in a country undergoing vast change.

But Mr. Obama does not plan to use his visit to issue an ultimatum to Mr. Castro on human rights, nor does he go bearing pledges to end United States democracy programs in Cuba that aim to undercut the communist government there.

The president is also not expected to announce that he is giving up the United States’ naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and is not in a position to lift the trade embargo that still looms as an impediment to the normalization he sees as a pivotal piece of his foreign policy legacy — only Congress can do that.

Mr. Obama’s trip, rich with symbolic significance, represents the start of a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba that could open the floodgates of travel and commerce, and that has already unlocked diplomatic channels long slammed shut. But it also underscores the deep disagreements that persist between two countries separated by only 90 miles but a wide ideological divide.

The president is determined to sweep aside those disputes and do as much as he can to render irreversible the policy change he set in motion 15 months ago, buoyed by evidence that the American public was eager for a new approach. Mr. Obama and his aides point to public opinion polls that show Americans — including majorities in both political parties — lopsidedly in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, a step the administration took in July, as well as lifting the embargo.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has endorsed repealing the embargo. Donald J. Trump, who is leading the Republican field, has been muted in his criticism of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, and has merely said Mr. Obama “should have made a better deal” before moving toward normal relations.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican presidential contender, whose father was born in Cuba, has been sharply critical of Mr. Obama’s approach, and said last month that the president was traveling there “to essentially act as an apologist.”

Other critics, including some in Mr. Obama’s own party, have dismissed the president’s approach as naïve and dangerous, arguing that Mr. Obama has embraced a brutal regime and citing the recent increase in Cuba of detentions of antigovernment activists.

“I understand the desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat and son of Cuban immigrants, said in a 30-minute speech last week from the Senate floor. He mentioned a young dissident, Carlos Amel Oliva, who met in Miami this month with Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Mr. Oliva was detained upon his return to Cuba for what the government called “antisocial behavior.”

“Unless the Castros are compelled to change their dictatorship — the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people — the answer to this won’t be different than the last 50-some-odd years,” Mr. Menendez said.

Mr. Rhodes said the president would address human rights head-on in his private talks with Mr. Castro, 84, as well as in his speech, which is expected to be broadcast in both Cuba and the United States.

 “The difference here is that in the past, because of certain U.S. policies, the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change, that the U.S. was seeking to essentially overturn the government in Cuba or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba,” Mr. Rhodes said.

This time, he added, Mr. Obama “will make very clear that that’s up to the Cuban people.”

There are limits to the new spirit of openness. The president will not meet with Fidel Castro, 89, who embodies the rancorous history between the United States and Cuba. And as of Friday, there were no plans for Mr. Obama and the younger Mr. Castro to take questions from the news media after their meeting, a standard element of the president’s schedule when he meets with foreign leaders overseas.

At the heart of Mr. Obama’s policy is a gamble that the thaw will eventually force changes on Cuba’s communist government by nurturing the hopes of its citizens, particularly a younger generation more interested in Internet access and business opportunities than in Cuba’s grievances against the United States.

“Obama would like to be remembered as the president who ended the Cold War in Latin America and normalized relations with Cuba, so he needs to do as much as he can to make it difficult for the next president to reverse this,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But suspicion of the United States remains potent in Cuba. This month, Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, published a lengthy editorial admonishing Mr. Obama not to expect Cuba to “abandon its revolutionary ideals” as part of the opening.

On Thursday, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, the foreign minister, publicly took issue with White House officials who said the new policy was designed to “empower” the Cuban people. “The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” he told reporters in Havana.

Mr. Obama’s itinerary, the product of delicate negotiations that were a sequel to the monthslong secret talks that forged the opening, reflects the diplomatic balance he is working to strike.

Mr. Obama will hold meetings with Cuba’s government on Monday, sitting down with Mr. Castro and dining with him at a state dinner, but he has also loaded his schedule with events that pose challenges to Cuba’s government, directly or indirectly.

On Monday, Mr. Obama is to meet with a group of entrepreneurs pursuing business opportunities outside the mostly state-run economy. On Tuesday, much to the consternation of Mr. Castro, Mr. Obama will sit down with antigovernment dissidents and civil society leaders.

“The changes to the embargo are clearly a long-term bet for human rights improvement on the island, but the president is arriving, barring any significant breakthrough, with no concrete human rights advances,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University professor of international relations who runs a Brooklyn-based research organization, Global Americans.

Mr. Obama is planning a speech on Tuesday on the future of relations with Cuba, and will also attend an exhibition baseball game between Cuba’s national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Carlos M. Gutierrez, a Havana-born Republican who as secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush drafted a lengthy report in 2006 calling for an end to the “Castro-led axis” and the tightening of American sanctions against Cuba, said he now believed that Mr. Obama’s alternative had a better chance of bringing about change.

Mr. Gutierrez, chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group and the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, will accompany Mr. Obama on the trip, along with several dozen members of Congress pressing for an end to the embargo and business leaders aiming to close deals in Cuba in the meantime.

“The Cubans aren’t sure what the U.S. intentions are — whether this is being done because it is a Trojan horse or a hidden regime-change policy,” Mr. Gutierrez said in an interview. “The president’s big challenge will be to make progress in chipping away at the tremendous distrust that remains between our two countries.”

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