Opportunity and challenge in Cuba

The Observer editorial board

Air Force One makes its descent Sunday into Havana, Cuba.
Air Force One makes its descent Sunday into Havana, Cuba. REUTERS

The photo is both spectacular and sobering – Air Force One descending into Cuba, taken from the perspective of a Havana street. It’s an historic image – the first Cuban visit of a sitting American president in 88 years – but it’s also a glimpse of a country that those years seem to have left behind.

In that contrast is both the opportunity and the challenge the U.S. faces in engaging a country that has willingly shunned progress for its people. Barack Obama’s bold journey, which continues today, is an appropriate next step.

The president hopes to build a new relationship with Cuba, a tiny but hugely symbolic country to Americans. Obama met Monday with Cuban president Raul Castro, and he will attend a baseball game Tuesday between the Cuban national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Already, the two countries have normalized diplomatic relations after decades of hostility, and last week the U.S. eased some restrictions on banking and travel. Those changes allow Americans to visit Cuba for “educational” purposes – essentially unlocking the door for tourism – while also allowing Cubans to visit the U.S. for short-term cultural, education and work opportunities.

By encouraging that flow of commerce and culture, Obama also is nudging Congress toward lifting the economic embargo and tourism ban still in place. That’s not, however, a simple decision.

Cuba remains a Communist police state. Although it allows its citizens more freedom to travel and access the internet, it still attempts to control information and block access to websites. And although the Castro regime has held fewer political prisoners in recent years, it still engages in political persecution – including arresting dozens at a protest march just hours before Air Force One touched down.

Those arrests, as well as Castro’s defiant posture Monday when asked about Cuban dissidents, send a clear reminder that dictatorships don’t willingly go democratic. In fact, since Obama announced his Cuba engagement policy 15 months ago, human rights activists believe Castro has clamped down on his people even harder.

Still, the two countries ultimately want the same thing – a relationship that involves closer economic ties. By necessity, that will mean the lifting of sanctions that have both stunted the Cuban economy and allowed the Castros to cast the U.S. as the primary reason for Cuba’s ills.

Lifting that embargo could also prompt the human rights progress that isolating Cuba has failed to bring. Allowing U.S. companies and tourists into Cuba will help that country’s private sector blossom, and as the Cuban government becomes more accustomed and dependent on that growth, the U.S. will gain more leverage to press for other kinds of change.

To that end, Obama was right to include in this week’s itinerary a meeting with dissidents – a clear message to Castro that our countries’ budding relationship is about more than commerce.

That relationship, however, will be bumpy. A single presidential visit won’t change how the Castros treat their people, of course. It’s possible that nothing will. But decades of punishing Cuba surely hasn’t worked. Let’s see if a new approach does.