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Obama in Cuba:
The Limits of “Engagement”

| March 21, 2016

waiting for godot in cuba obama

Vladimir or Estragon in Cuba. (y.becart)

By Jorge G. Castañeda

Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Cuba is undoubtedly an historic moment, as it will mark the first time in 88 years that a sitting American president has set foot on the island. But superlatives are far less useful than a pragmatic look at the practical implications – for both the United States and Cuba – of Obama’s legacy-enhancing move.

In fact, pragmatism is among the main shapers of Obama’s approach to Cuba. He recognizes the failure of the trade embargo, in place since 1960, to push the country to strengthen human-rights protections, much less to move toward democracy. Thus, Obama has pragmatically – perhaps even somewhat cynically – decided to abandon trying to compel Cuba’s leaders to change their political system. After all, if the US had set a political opening in Cuba, or even a modicum of respect for human rights by the government, as a precondition for normalization of diplomatic relations, the two countries would still be at an impasse.

But while Obama may be burnishing his legacy by pursuing unconditional normalization – so-called “engagement” – what he is not doing is securing any actual change in Cuba. “Engagement” is, ultimately, just rhetoric.

Indeed, if engagement is supposed to result in political change, US engagement with Cuba is most likely doomed to fail; after all, trade and investment have done nothing to bring about a democratic opening in Vietnam over the last 20 years. Nor have 30 years of massive trade with, and investment in, China brought that country’s leaders any closer to democracy. If engagement entails setting aside matters relating to democracy and human rights, at least partly, it is still a sensible policy, if not a very altruistic one.

In any case, attending a baseball game i

n Havana in the company of Cuban President Raúl Castro, as Obama is set to do, is not a necessary element of this policy. On the contrary, as the columnist Andrés Oppenheimer has argued, it is a serious mistake, as it amounts to a slap in the face for the victims of the Castro regime’s human-right abuses.

Jettisoning the trade embargo, a failed policy, makes sense, but it does not require “playing nice” with a dictator. One never knows whether other dictators will invoke a regrettable precedent set by an American head of state, particularly one who is highly admired nearly everywhere in the world.

This is not to say that Obama has forsaken Cuba’s small and beleaguered opposition. Indeed, he is scheduled to meet with Cuban dissidents, much to the displeasure of the Castro regime. Moreover, Obama will address questions of democracy and respect for human rights in his live televised address to the Cuban public. The media representatives who will flank Obama during his visit – including, unfortunately, at that ill-advised baseball game – will take up these crucial issues in their reports, even if they are peppered with platitudes about Cuban music and published alongside silly shots of vintage automobiles on Havana’s streets.

While the US cannot – and, it seems, will not – ignore the principles of democracy and human rights in its dealings with Cuba, there is a distinction between democratic norms and economic policies. In fact, the biggest challenge facing the US as it attempts to normalize ties with Cuba is on the economic front.

In the 15 months since ties were reestablished and prospectors headed to the island in search of investment opportunities, little has actually happened, in terms of trade, tourism, and new projects. Indeed, as the New York Times reports, American and Cuban players have signed only a handful of business deals – a reality that “threatens to sap momentum from the process of building relations.”

Part of the problem is the lingering embargo. While support for lifting it has grown within the Cuban-American community and the US Congress, it is unlikely to happen before Obama leaves office.

Though a number of restrictions on travel and financial transactions have been rescinded, the obstacles in the path of a real change in the island’s economic situation remain formidable. Even without the embargo, Cuba would still be held back by its dilapidated infrastructure; strict labor laws; restrictions on foreign-investment; an educated but unskilled workforce, unaccustomed to Western workplace practices; and a lack of contracts and legal instruments to enforce those practices. All of this makes it highly unlikely that US engagement will have much of an impact on ordinary Cubans.

For Cuba’s leaders, the absence of concrete economic benefits is a massive disappointment. With Venezuela facing economic devastation, owing partly to collapsing oil prices, its people are no longer interested in subsidizing Cuban socialism to the tune of several billion dollars per year; indeed, they have already rejected their own left-wing leadership. Castro saw this shift coming even before the Venezuelans did, and began looking to the US to take up the slack. But the US hasn’t, and probably won’t, at least not for some time.

Without a strong economic impact, America’s opening to Cuba will not make even a small contribution to political liberalization on the island. This will not matter much for Obama’s legacy. But it does raise questions about how important an individual leader’s legacy should be in shaping policy toward an endearing but impoverished and still-repressive country.

Jorge G. CastañedaJorge G. Castañeda was Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000-2003, after joining with his ideological opponent, President Vicente Fox, to create the country’s first democratic government. He is currently Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, and is the author of The Latin American Left After the Cold War and Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. (© Project Syndicate)

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16 Responses for Obama in Cuba:
The Limits of “Engagement””

  1. Linda Sparda says:

    This is a slap in the face to America. Cant wait till they leave for good. We are in triple debt thanks to Obama. I cant Personsally stand him or his wife. What A joke.

  2. Tired of it says:

    Obama is a disgrace to our country. I can’t wait for January 2017 when we no longer will be lead by a spineless weakling.

  3. Brian says:

    “Engagement is ultimately just rhetoric.” Yes, and as we all now are painfully aware, rhetoric is one of the few skills which this incompetent bum possesses. His lying silver tongue is what put him where he is today – I agree wholeheartedly with “Tired”; If only we could send him down the road early.

  4. Common Sense says:

    So what was the alternative? Continue the same embargo that ha produced no results in over 50 years? It is a beginning and expecting immediate results is naive. Change will come in time.

    The Obama haters are angry because he has managed to do what no other President has done. It will part of his already impressive legacy. Do we call other countries and their leaders weak because they have relations with Cuba? The Berlin Wall came down and Europe changed, Cuba will change too, in time.

  5. just me says:

    Its obvious the embargo has NOT worked. we have relations with other socialist/communist nations so why not little Cuba?? We failed the people of Cuba by not aiding them to undo this murderous regime. 0bama was a disgrace to or nation by posing with this dictator in front of the likeness of their murderous racist hero. he also is a disgrace to our nation by saying WE have problems that they have done good things on for their people. he should be speaking the TRUTH while there that their economic plight is the fault of their socialist/Marxist leaders NOT the US. he should be clearly speaking that there is NO blockade around Cuba something its leader tell its people. They do so knowing the people have no other source of info other then the official Government story. He should be speaking and pressing that the only path to total normalizations is within their governments moves towards a free and open society.

  6. Dave says:

    “”The Obama haters are angry because he has managed to do what no other President has done” any president could have done what Obama just did. they chose to not overlook the abuse of the citizens of Cuba and their civil rights. The human rights-abusing regime has cracked down ever more harshly on its dissidents, detaining, jailing, beating, restricting and otherwise intimidating them in record numbers. Since Obama’s policy change, Cuba has recorded its three highest monthly totals of political arrests of the last six years – 1,447 in November 2015, 1,414 in January, and at least 1,141 last month – according to the opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. There have been at least 2,555 political arrests this year already, totaling almost a third of the 8,616 that took place in all of 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans late last week to visit Cuba before Obama’s trip due to a dispute with Havana about which dissidents Obama can see while he’s there.

    And this ” Meanwhile, Havana is strengthening its ties to North Korea, which is developing missiles and warheads that can hit the U.S. mainland, raising questions about whether Cuba’s proximity to Florida could make it a security threat.

    With tensions between Washington and Pyongyang growing, North Korea’s foreign minister visited Cuba in March of 2015 and the North Korean Workers’ Party’s secretary of international relations visited in June. In recent years, Cuba has been caught smuggling weapons to North Korea, violating United Nations sanctions.

    But if Obama’s concerned that he’s getting little for his new policy, that human rights in Cuba are deteriorating, and that Havana is cozying up to one of America’s most reckless enemies, he’s not showing it. “”

    I guess Obama doesn’t have any issues with any if this.

  7. Sherry says:

    Thanks for some reasonable thinking “Common Sense”. . . those that just love to bash twice elected President Obama with non-substantiated, obnoxious name calling are so tiresome. Name calling seems to be the only tool of discourse by the ignorant.. . . just listen to Trump.

    At least President Obama is taking some peaceful actions in the name of attempting to reach out to a nearby nation of people who have been left behind and essentially ignored by us for the past 50 odd years. Our past political stance has done nothing to effect change in Cuba. Why not try something different???

  8. Geezer says:

    Cuban cigars, sugar cane, coffee, and rum.
    I’m going to get my share!

  9. William Moya says:

    The ugly American, a phrase popularized by a movie in the 60’s (there maybe a book involved) that capsulizes the behavior of some Americans abroad, and not referring just to the guy in the Hawaiian shirt and shorts, but that of are more enlightened citizens serving the country in foreign places.
    In the case of this article, camouflage as a real politic analysis that turns instead to be an attack of a liberal pragmatist approach taken by President Obama and his administration. In fact Castaneda believes that Obama is trying to get himself in the history books or worse he may be a cynic. In case you stop reading by the second paragraph because you have a life unlike yours truly, I’ll unravel it for you.
    This maybe a case of the ugly American contagion, since Castaneda is originally from Mexico and the other quoted author from Argentina, both of them are of the neocon variety. How do I know this you may ask, partly because I used to be one, and not to make this too long for the two guys reading it, when it comes to domestic policy think “trickle down economics”, and in foreign policy “American hubris” (If you decide I would like to go further than this, read Leo Strauss, but you’re on your own). The saddest part is that the ugly American is back in the U.S., running for President with a lot of followers.

  10. Jim Bob says:

    As any veteran who has served abroad can attest, the usual way most Americans deal with indigenous folk is to yell loudly as if that magically translates English into the foreign tongue.

  11. chopshop says:

    Obama in Cuba talking about human rights, what a loser. he should be in Chicago , Detroit and Ferguson and talk human rights where he has done nothin for the people. wake up dumbocrats //////

  12. Lin says:

    The embargo hasn’t worked? No, communism hasn’t worked. The Castros are rich and the Cuban people are very poor. Convicted murderer given asylum, repression is the Cuban government’s MO. Did the 1950s and 1960s not happen when businesses and livelihoods were taken away from Cubans and foreigners alike?
    Get real. Human rights abuses are happening today in Cuba. Why reward that?

    The picture of our President in front of the revolutionary Che poster is ironic since the dem/lib mantra pretends to be the fixer for the gap between rich and poor. Nowhere is that gap more evident this week than Cuba. Just open the door to our money and for sure it will go into the pockets of the poor? Who says so?

    That picture of Raul and our President enjoying the ballgame and the 51 second Obama statement about the latest terrorist attack shows again Obama’s priorities. I guess there wasn’t a golf course for him to play.
    And it’s more important to keep an ideological promise to close Guantanamo than keep those terrorist prisoners from rejoining the battle. When he got off air force 1, at least there was no one there for him to bow to.

  13. Common Sense says:

    Well Lin, communism hasn’t worked but it is till controlling Cuba, after 50 years. No one is rewarding the human right abuses, the President is working on a way forward to eliminate them.

    Tell me, since you don’t like what the President is trying to do, what alternative do you or the Republicans propose? Did you thin continuing the embargo was going to change anything? Do you have a better idea?

  14. Lin says:

    Cuba is in charge of its own destiny
    Its leaders have chosen Communism
    Dems/libs have long accused Republicans of nation-building, imperialism, trying to spread democracy (oh heaven forbid) around the world. So what is Obama’s goal?
    If Communism doesn’t work, and the money Americans may spend in Cuba may or may not get into the hands of the people, why stop the embargo? Let’s not meddle.

    I do not forget Cuban government confiscation
    I do not close my eyes to Cuban government repression still going on and their treatment of those they consider political prisoners
    I do not forget Cuban government harboring fbi most wanted terrorist cop killer Joanne chesimard
    I have not forgotten who Cuba’s allies are

  15. Lin says:

    Farc, the narco-terrorist group was also an invited guest, 40 of them, at the cozy baseball game.
    Kerry will be requesting $450 million to pay to the Columbian government — don’t ask me why?
    Maybe money does buy love
    Again, are we nation-building, spreading democracy or what?
    Per Reuters/ abc channel 10

  16. Sherry says:

    I think of this another way. The “embargo” itself should be defined as “meddling”. Sure, it absolutely was the right thing to do when it was first imposed, but time has told us that our embargo did not bring freedom to the Cuban people. So, I see this attempt at “peacefully” normalizing relations as a way of possibly minimizing the meddling and spreading Democracy in a positive way instead of holding tight to grudges and fear.

    No, I do not think our President should act out of fear and panic and STOP any diplomatic process any time an emergency or terrorist act happens in another country. If we act terrorized and give up our rights, freedoms and normal lives. . . the “terrorists” win! Yes, of course we should all be concerned, compassionate and vigilant, but we should not let terrorists completely disrupt our important work and our lives.

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