DURING HIS RECENT TRIP to Cuba, President Barack Obama extended “una rosa blanca”, a white rose, to Cuban society both metaphorically and rhetorically. In invoking the words of the poet and hero of Cuban nationalism, Jose Marti, the American President offered the white rose to both his friends and his enemies.
While not as black and white as this would suggest, the ‘friends’ that Obama was reaching out to are the citizens of Cuba. The ‘enemies’ are those entrenched in the Cuban government who are still bent on living in the paradigm of the Cold War, in order to perpetuate the status quo that has held them in power for so long.
By the end of President Obama’s visit to Cuba, through his actions and rhetoric, one can only conclude that he is playing the long game when it comes to Cuba. When the announcement came in December of 2014 that the United States and Cuba would begin the process of trying to normalize relations, many began to guess as to when, where, and how the half-century old diplomatic stand-off would end.
The reality, however, is that nothing dramatic will likely change before 2018. By that time, President Obama will be out of office and U.S. intelligence expects the Cuban government to transition to a governing authority led by someone other than a Castro for the first time since the 1950s.
During his visit, President Obama met with small business entrepreneurs in Cuba, spent a little time with civil society dissidents, attended a baseball game, and addressed a select group of Cubans at Havana’s Grand Theatre.
Yes, there was the joint press conference with President Raul Castro and the obligatory events to pacify the Cuban regime. But the focus for the President was less on tangible agreements reached, and more on ‘hope’ for the future of the relationship between these two countries.
Critics will argue that this is typical Obama: strong on rhetoric but light on results. However, with more than 50 years of hostile relations to overcome, the messages conveyed are important. And not just the message itself, but who the message is directed at. Young entrepreneurs, civil dissidents, baseball fans and a host of other ‘average’ Cubans were the targeted recipients of President Obama’s message regarding a new future for U.S./Cuban relations.
This strategy may be the wisest course of action yet. In sowing the seeds for a new era in U.S./Cuban relations with the young and with the ‘average’ members of Cuban society, there is the possibility that the wishes of the Cuban people for normalized relations will be present when the transition to new leadership in Cuba takes place.
This point is not insignificant as, not only will that transition mark a new moment of opportunity for a directional change in Cuban politics, but it will also remove one more hurdle that stands in the way of removing the U.S. embargo. For it is the embargo and human rights issues that, together, form the chasm that prohibits any significant progress to be made in a full normalization of relations at this time.
These two issues go to the core of the identity of each nation. The United States government stands firm in its commitment to defend the rights of citizens to political dissent without fear of punishment. That is core to the American Revolution and the establishment of the right to free speech. For the Cuban government, it is the commitment to the socialist model of economic equality for all that is core.
The embargo stands as a symbol of United States opposition to the Cuban government helping its people achieve a level of balanced economic prosperity. This ideal was one of the cornerstones of the Cuban Revolution. So it stands to reason that both sides refuse to give way on positions that they see as pillars to their foundation as a society. And as the argument goes, both sides can poke holes in how these foundational values are not truly equitable in either country.
Reports abound of Cuban officials who live with extravagant luxuries while many other Cubans go without. Conversely, while all American possess equal right to free speech in society, it is typically those who have great wealth that have their voices truly heard by legislators and other government leaders.
So while the embargo will not end until the conditions for political dissidents in Cuba change, and vice versa, the end of the Castro regime may prove to be the moment when an opening exists. New leadership in Cuba may be willing to concede more space for political dissent. Simultaneously, with the exit of the Castro brothers, one of the conditions stipulated in the Helms-Burton Act for the removal of the embargo, will be achieved.
While not guaranteed, that moment of transition may be, and likely is, the best bet for any substantive changes to be made regarding a real normalization of U.S./Cuban relations. With that in mind, it makes sense for President Obama to speak of hope for the people of Cuba. It makes sense for him to take the time to try and speak to the people of Cuba. It makes sense for him to extend “una rosa blanca”. It makes sense to play the long game for a future Cuban-American relationship.
The trouble is, no one will know the effectiveness of that strategy until President Obama is out of office. There is also the considerable fact that the next American administration may dramatically change course and return to a recalcitrant stand-off.
Perhaps hope is the best we can hope for.