Obama in Cuba: The reasons for his trip
At this stage of the process that began in December 2014 with the surprise announcement of the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba, hardly anything counts as spectacular news. The detail in the decision by Washington and Havana that made news in the traditional sense (man bites dog) was that the plan to sit down and talk implied that Cuba gave up its prior demand that the embargo be lifted. The United States, for its part, accepted that Cuba did not undertake to make any special changes to its own political system.
Since then, each side has been following a basic script that should one day lead to complete opening. All we need ask ourselves is what U.S. President Barack Obama has to gain with his visit to Cuba on 21-22 March, a decision not without risks, and what might be the motivation for its early date. The key is as much the forthcoming Cuban calendar as that of the United States.
In the Cuban context, developments in the political and economic situation in Latin America do not support an attitude of inertia and waiting for circumstances to improve while Raúl Castro’s term of government runs out (although that does not necessarily mean a regime change). Substantial changes are occurring in some areas of Latin America that will have an inescapable effect in Havana.
The instability in Venezuela, together with the change of government in Argentina, could trigger a modification of Cuba’s alliances. Although it is too soon to predict a major reconfiguration of alliances, a gradual fall of leftleaning populism and a return to the prevalence of moderation and neo-liberalism cannot be ruled out. Therefore, balancing the enduring presence of Cuba in Latin America with good relations with Washington is a priority. Here, Obama comes to the rescue.
The U.S. President has the advantage that his formerly risky wager on Cuba no longer affects his political present or future. He is no longer a presidential candidate. The issue of Cuba no longer has the weight it had years ago in the electoral context of Florida, where the vote count no longer depends on the Cuban issue. The influence of sectors opposed to normalization and the end of the embargo has been eroded by the passage of time and circumstances. In the rest of U.S. territory, Cuba does not exist as a “problem”. This is becoming clear in the Republican and Democratic primary campaigns, where not even candidates of Cuban origin (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) can exploit what used to be an advantage. What is more, demanding the end of trade barriers is seen as beneficial to the economies of many states producing goods that Cuba needs and wants to buy.
Returning to the Cuba-Latin America scenario, the changes in political and social tensions bring about the benefit of lower pressure in other regions of the planet. With the disappearance of Cuba as a source of infiltration in different areas (Africa, the Caribbean, South America), Havana is even taking on a cooperative role as mediator in domestic conflicts (Colombia). It cooperates on drug control functions (although there is suspicion that individuals are implicated). It guarantees the security of access routes to the Panama Canal and must deal with U.S. stubbornness in maintaining Guantánamo.
The only challenge and risk posed by Cuba for the United States is its own instability, caused by economic deterioration that may affect the political fabric and provoke internal conflicts, which (at the moment) only its own armed forces and security agencies can contain. Security agencies in Washington and the Pentagon are aware that the United States is already sufficiently preoccupied with more explosive scenarios in other parts of the world (Middle East, Asia). Therefore for the White House, whoever its occupant may be, the priority is to enjoy a certain amount of stability south of Key West. Cuban President Raúl Castro has no doubt taken note.
According to this logic, a number of operations are whittling away the force of the embargo. There has been a tremendous increase in visits to Cuba by U.S. citizens fitting into the authorized categories (studies, religious organizations, aid of various kinds) and by thousands of Cubans by birth who have the curious privilege of visiting their families. The impact of entry to the U.S. of Cubans with visas must also be taken into account: a minimum of 20,000 a year was authorized by Clinton to stop the boatlift in 1994. In addition to these arrivals is the systematic trickle of immigrants reaching U.S. territory through third countries in the Central American corridor.
This complex panorama is part of the scenario of Obama’s trip to Cuba, and the Cuban government is well aware of it. It will be part of the legacy of the transition, whatever shape it takes.
Joaquín Roy is a Jean Monnet professor and director of the European Union Centre of the University of Miami.
President Barack Obama will visit Cuba in March.