As President Barack Obama landed in Havana yesterday, the first sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years to visit Cuba, he did so with his work cut out for him. Even as the island was abuzz with excitement over his visit, the Cuban government had already begun detaining protestors and ordering dissidents to pull out of their scheduled meeting with Obama on Tuesday. Even as officials worked to beautify Havana for the president's trip, the state-run newspaper ran editorials telling Obama to steer clear of "internal affairs." And even after polls have shown that strong majorities of both Americans and Cubans are eager to move on from a self-defeating embargo policy after five decades, critics like Sen. Ted Cruz have used the trip to launch the same sort of tedious attack we've heard for years: diplomatic engagement with Cuba is nothing short of a full endorsement of the Castros. The expectations for President Obama's trip are high. But that anyone has expectations at all is a stark contrast from where U.S.-Cuba relations just a couple of years ago.
For decades, we've heard the same rhetoric from Cruz and other politicians on the need to maintain the embargo until the Cuban government unilaterally overhauls its entire political system. Shortly before suspending his campaign last week, Sen. Marco Rubio laid out the conditions he would have required before normalizing ties with the island. They included free elections, a free press, the removal of Chinese and Russian intelligence, and the return of all U.S. fugitives--an extensive checklist, mind you, that had to be fulfilled at the same time the U.S. was funding ineffective "democracy programs" aimed at overthrowing the Cuban government. Where our diplomatic corps would have fit in under Rubio's plan was left unclear--presumably they would brush up on their solitaire skills until Cuba spontaneously accommodated to our every whim.
They likely would have been waiting for a very long time. Rubio and Cruz's preferred policy toward Cuba fails to recognize diplomatic relations as anything but a reward, rather than a means to advance our national interests. Unsurprisingly, it's one that's failed spectacularly. Far from uniting the world against Cuba, the embargo has isolated us on the global stage and undermined our influence in the rest of Latin America. It's allowed the Cuban government to paint all dissent as the inauthentic creation of outside Yanqui influence and infringed on Americans' right to freely travel abroad. And it's mandated burning through millions in wasteful spending on democracy programs because some members of Congress apparently believe that Nintendo Game Boys and Godiva chocolates are more effective promoters of American values in Cuba than actual Americans.
President Obama's decision to normalize relations breaks away from that failed ideology and acknowledges that change in Cuba has to come from within. The steps taken by his administration in the meantime have shown that a policy of engagement can lead to actual progress for the Cuban people. Expanding travel licenses has led to Americans visiting the island in droves, an economic windfall to Cuba's private sector with benefits that far outweigh the Cuban government's own intake. Top American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, now meet with civil society both inside and out of Cuba. More and more Cubans feel emboldened to speak out in public to express dissatisfaction with their government. Even the rise in political arrests is seen by some dissidents as a reaction to activism newly emboldened by renewed ties.
Now President Obama is in Cuba to speak directly to the Cuban people about this new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. With a popularity rating in Cuba higher than either of the Castros, he has a historic opportunity to deliver a message of support that will resonate across the entire island. And with literally hundreds of journalists from around the world on hand to report on his trip, the Cuban government's response in both word and action will be more scrutinized than ever. Even supporters of lifting the embargo recognize that we won't resolve all of our differences with Cuba overnight. But 11 million Cubans will be watching an American president extend his hand to them in person this week--and waiting to see how their leaders respond.