President Obama Makes Landmark Visit to Cuba
President Obama became the first president to visit Cuba in 88 years on March 20, 2016, beginning his two-day visit to the communist island state. President Coolidge was the last sitting president to visit Cuba, in 1928.
United States relations with Cuba have been strained for decades, particularly during the Cold War. Tensions came to a head under President Eisenhower, who implemented a trade embargo in 1960 after Cuba allied with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. Relations with Cuba froze following President Kennedy’s failure to remove Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis.
Obama’s visit with his family, though brief was filled with a flurry of activity. He met with Cuban President Raúl Castro, anti-government dissenters, and small-business owners. Obama also enjoyed a number of cultural events, including a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Baseball team, to help change Cuba’s citizens. According to ESPN, the March 22 game was “the first visit by a major league team to the communist island since 1999,” when the Baltimore Orioles visited during their spring training. The Rays won 4-1.
Obama and his family received a warm welcome from the Cuban people, but CNN explains that “the cultural events, U.S. diplomats say, are the administration’s attempt to connect with the Cuban people and counter the longtime portrayal in Cuban state media of the United States as a hostile force lurking just off Cuba’s shores.”
Visiting Cuba is a continuation of Obama’s 2014 declaration of restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba. “In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years,” Obama said from the White House on December 17, 2014, “we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.” President Castro echoed Obama’s desire to begin a new chapter in US/Cuba relations.
Slowly, but surely, US/Cuban relations have improved since 2014. In 2015, Cuba was removed from the ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’ list; the embassies were re-opened in the United States and Cuba; Secretary of State Kerry became the first US secretary of state to visit Cuba in 70 years, and many dialogues were held regarding human rights, environmental protection and, normalization of relations. The first direct mail flight in 50 years between the two countries flew on March 16, 2016.
In his remarks to the Cuban people, Obama addressed the long and often unpleasant history between the United States and Cuba. “Havana is only 90 miles from Florida,” Obama began, “but to get here we had to travel a great distance — over barriers of history and ideology; barriers of pain and separation.”
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” Obama stated in the same address before highlighting the similarities and differences between the United States and Cuba and elaborating on his vision for normalized relations between the two countries. Human rights issues also received attention.
President Obama has received backlash for the reopening of friendly relations with Cuba, particularly from Republican Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio. “The Obama administration’s new policy toward Cuba has been nothing more than unilateral concessions from the United States that will strengthen the brutal Castro regime and do nothing to help free the Cuban people,” said Rubio’s website for his recently suspended presidential campaign.
The change in relations between the United States and Cuba comes at a critical time. Cuban President Castro announced in 2013 that he will not be seeking reelection at the end of his five-year term; his term will end in 2018.