The Lim­its of Obama’s Cuba Trip

His visit may be his­toric, but change won’t hap­pen un­less Raúl Cas­tro will al­low it to oc­cur

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - BLOOMBERG VIEW -

With all due re­spect to Mick and Keith, a Rolling Stones con­cert is no longer a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Nor is a visit from a U.S. pres­i­dent, nec­es­sar­ily. Change in Cuba—where th­ese two events are sched­uled for suc­ces­sive days in March—de­pends most of all on the Cuban govern­ment. Pres­i­dent Obama’s trip to Cuba on March 21 is not, as its crit­ics con­tend, a vote of con­fi­dence in Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro’s govern­ment. It’s sim­ply an op­por­tu­nity for Obama to ac­knowl­edge both the suc­cesses and the lim­its of U.S. pol­icy.

More than a year af­ter the nor­mal­iza­tion of ties be­gan be­tween the U.S. and Cuba, there are tan­gi­ble signs of progress. Com­mer­cial flights and ferry ser­vice from the U.S. will soon re­sume, bring­ing more Amer­i­can trav­el­ers to Cuba. U.S. cel­lu­lar com­pa­nies pro­vide ser­vice on the is­land, and In­ter­net ac­cess has im­proved. The first U.S. fac­tory on Cuban soil in more than half a cen­tury will soon open. And se­ri­ous talks have be­gun on is­sues such as in­vestor pro­tec­tions, tele­com reg­u­la­tions, and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

Like the hun­dreds of mil­lions more dol­lars in U.S. re­mit­tances lift­ing the for­tunes of or­di­nary Cubans and fu­el­ing small busi­nesses, th­ese de­vel­op­ments can have a pow­er­ful cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect. For one thing, they raise pop­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tions and put the onus for change squarely on Cuba’s govern­ment. More­over, even with the em­bargo in­tact, a visit from a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can pres­i­dent may help con­vince the Cuban peo­ple that the U.S. is no en­emy.

So you can ex­pect an elo­quent speech or two. But soar­ing rhetoric about free ex­pres­sion is mean­ing­less with­out sup­port for those who de­pend on it to crit­i­cize the Cas­tro regime, which has in­creased its per­se­cu­tion of them. Obama can help his cred­i­bil­ity by rec­og­niz­ing that, for most Cubans, daily life is much as it was. <BW>

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