Four things to know about Obama’s historic visit to Cuba

U.S. President Barack Obama travelled to Havana this week, laying to rest Cold War tensions and ushering in a new phase of relations with Latin America. Here are key takeaways.

By: /
March 24, 2016
The hands of U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro are seen during a news conference as part of Obama's three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

President Barack Obama, his family and a 40-person delegation arrived in Havana Sunday night for a historic visit to the communist country that has been in the United States' black book since the height of the Cold War. Despite being only 145 kilometres off the coast of Florida, a U.S. president had not visited Cuba in nearly 90 years. The trip marked the latest gesture by the Obama administration to normalize diplomatic relations with its southern neighbour. 

In December 2014, Obama announced that the two countries would initiate a new era of diplomatic relations, despite their turbulent histories and Republican fury. Since then, Obama took Cuba off of the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, re-opened embassies in both countries, exchanged prisoners, relaxed travel restrictions and signed a memorandum of understanding on environmental protection. Chartered flights and mail service have also since resumed.

Then, this week, Obama reaffirmed his intention of advancing “mutual interests” and burying the last remnant of the Cold War. Here’s what you need to know about the trip and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations:

1. Obama called for democracy.

In Cuba, where political dissent and public criticism are met with repressive and sometimes violent tactics, Obama’s calls for democracy were met with applause. In a somewhat awkward joint press conference on Monday, Obama said the two leaders had a very “fruitful conversation” around democracy and human rights. During the press conference, President Raul Castro took a jab at Obama, as Reuters reported: "Castro said Cuba has a strong record on rights such as health, access to education and women's equality. His government criticizes the United States on racism, police violence and the use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba." Castro then continued to deflect questions on political prisoners from U.S media (“I think that human rights issues should not be politicized”) before concluding the affair.

In Cuba, internet censorship is widespread and access to it at all is expensive. Human rights abuses have been heavily documented by watchdog organizations. It’s worth noting that Congress continues to tack on millions each year (to a tab that’s already over $250 million) to promote democracy and topple the regime. Taxpayers have seen little return on their money.

2. There’s still an embargo.

Obama called the decades-old trade embargo "an outdated burden on the Cuban people" in his opening statement. And lifting it is not within his executive power, so that lies in the hands of a Republicans in Congress, who were not very happy about his visit or plans to normalize relations with Cuba in the first place. “Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba,” said Obama in a vague rallying cry. During his tenure Obama has been able to facilitate some trade with Cuba, namely in the agriculture and communications sectors. Increased tourism has also boosted the island’s economy in 2015. And while the country still operates under a socialist political platform, Castro has ushered in recent economic adjustments, something his brother Fidel began to do before resigning in 2008. Cuba’s economic status is still “repressed” and is dominated by state-owned companies connected to the country’s military and political elite. Lifting the embargo could act as a catalyst to change that, though it’s doubtful that would happen any time soon.

3. The visit was a stepping stone to increased trade with Latin America.

Since 2014, when Obama announced renewed relations with the Caribbean island, leaders in Latin America have heralded the thawing as a positive first step for multilateral agreements in the region. Frosty relations between the two countries over past decades have bred long-standing opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, especially in Venezuela and Bolivia. Efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations have eased tensions across Latin America, opening up the region to larger trade negotiations. On Wednesday, the Obamas travelled to Argentina to meet with newly elected President Mauricio Macri and First Lady Juliana Awada to discuss climate change, peacekeeping, refugees and the defence of human rights and democracy. This visit is also being heralded as significant as a U.S. president hasn’t visited the country in almost two decades.

4. The future of bilateral relations is still uncertain.

With roughly nine months of his presidency left, Obama will be replaced in the Oval Office next year. Castro has also promised to retire in 2018, leaving many bilateral obstacles, such as the continuous U.S. occupation of Guantanamo Bay naval base and the embargo, still standing. It remains to be seen whether the détente taking place between both countries today will continue with new leaders in place.