Obama's his­toric trip to Cuba rife with risk, op­por­tu­nity

The Pak Banker - - 6BUSINESS -

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama will open a new era in the United States' thorny re­la­tion­ship with Cuba dur­ing a his­tory-mak­ing trip that has two seem­ingly dis­so­nant goals: lock­ing in his softer ap­proach while also push­ing the is­land's com­mu­nist lead­ers to change their ways.

Obama's 2½ day visit start­ing Sun­day will be a crown­ing mo­ment for the am­bi­tious diplo­matic ex­per­i­ment that he and Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro's govern­ment an­nounced barely a year ago. Af­ter a half-cen­tury of ac­ri­mony, the two for­mer Cold War foes are now in reg­u­lar con­tact. Amer­i­can trav­el­ers and busi­nesses are ea­gerly eye­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties on the is­land na­tion 90 miles (145 kilo­me­ters) south of Florida. Joined by his fam­ily, Obama will stroll the streets of Old Ha­vana and meet with Cas­tro in his pres­i­den­tial of­fices - im­ages unimag­in­able just a few years ago. He will sit in the stands with base­ball-crazed Cubans for a his­toric game be­tween their beloved na­tional team and Ma­jor League Base­ball's Tampa Bay Rays.

Obama also will meet with political dis­si­dents. Their ex­pe­ri­ences in the one-party state help ex­plain why some Cuban-Amer­i­cans see Obama's out­reach as a dis­grace­ful em­brace of a govern­ment whose prac­tices and val­ues be­tray much of what Amer­ica stands for. In­creas­ingly, though, that's be­com­ing a mi­nor­ity view among Cuban-Amer­i­cans, as well as the broader U.S. pop­u­la­tion.

White House of­fi­cials are mind­ful that Obama can­not ap­pear to gloss over deep and per­sis­tent dif­fer­ences. Even as the pres­i­dent works to­ward bet­ter ties, his state­ments along­side Cas­tro and dis­si­dents will be scru­ti­nized for signs of how ag­gres­sively he is push­ing the Ha­vana govern­ment to ful­fill prom­ises of re­form.

Cuban For­eign Min­is­ter Bruno Ro­driguez re­buked Obama ahead of the trip for sug­gest­ing that he would use the visit to pro­mote change. Ro­driguez said that many of Obama's pol­icy changes have es­sen­tially been mean­ing­less, and he dis­missed the no­tion that Obama was in any po­si­tion to em­power Cubans.

"The Cuban peo­ple em­pow­ered them­selves decades ago," Ro­driguez said, re­fer­ring to the 1959 rev­o­lu­tion that put the cur­rent govern­ment in power. He said if Obama was pre­oc­cu­pied with em­pow­er­ing Cubans, "some­thing must be go­ing wrong in U.S. democ­racy."

Obama's aides and sup­port­ers in Congress brushed off such tough talk from Cuban of­fi­cials. They ar­gue that decades of a U.S. pol­icy of iso­la­tion that failed to bring about change in Cuba il­lus­trated why en­gag­ing with the is­land is worth­while.

Yet Obama's op­po­nents in­sist he is re­ward­ing a govern­ment that has yet to show it is se­ri­ous about im­prov­ing hu­man rights and open­ing up its econ­omy and political sys­tem. Though Obama has been rolling back re­stric­tions on Cuba through reg­u­la­tory moves, he has been un­able to per­suade Congress to lift the U.S. trade em­bargo, a chief Cuban de­mand.

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