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