BY REED SHELTON
In a show of commitment to his pledge to normalize relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama’s March visit to Havana marked the first time a sitting president has set foot in that country since Calvin Coolidge travelled there in 1928.
Ending the Cold War policies of the 1960s and restoring diplomatic ties and trade with Cuba has been a continuing White House policy since 2009, and whilee considerable change has been made by the mutual reopening of embassies, relaxation of travel restrictions and renewal of mail services, it remains uncertain how far the changes will go.
According to Eric Rittinger, an associate professor of political science at Salisbury University, the efforts and victories made by the Obama administration have been the preemptive steps necessary for any legitimate change to be made in the future.
“I think what these policy changes represent is more symbolic than substantive in some ways,” Rittinger said. “But I think, ultimately, that it will lead to more substantive changes down the road.”
One of those substantive changes envisioned by the White House is the lifting of the 56-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, which was established following the Cuban nationalization of American Oil refineries and restricts all trade to the island nation with the exception of food and medicine.
President of SU’s Organization for Latin-American Students Ruth Taleno calls the administration’s efforts valuable and necessary in spite of the lingering negativity some Americans feel towards the communist state.
“We absolutely should start establishing, if not a positive, then at least a cordially, respectful relationship with this country that’s so close to us,” she said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”
The White House, via its official website, has said that America’s deliberate isolation of Cuba has “failed to accomplish our objective of empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country,” and that a different approach is called for.
In Havana, President Obama declared that “this embargo is going to end,” although he did not specify a timeframe.
However, the administration has noted that these efforts are not an end, but a means of improving both human rights conditions and fostering democratic reforms within Cuba– two areas in which the nation has been criticized since Fidel Castro overthrew and took power from former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day 1959.
The Communist Party of Cuba – now headed by Raúl Castro– has been accused of torture, the imprisonment of political dissidents, extrajudicial executions and numerous other offenses over the years, and Human Rights Watch has said that Cubans are “systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement and due process of law.”
In spite of these accusations and others like it, the Obama administration removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in May 2015, a list that now holds only three nations: Iran, Sudan and Syria.
President of SU’s College Republicans Patty Miller said she believes that the administration’s approach is too soft in light of the accusations against the Castro regime.
“Sure, the embargo hasn’t worked, but if the goal has been to bring democracy to Cuba than the route we’re going in now probably won’t either,” Miller said. “(The Castros) have been clear that they don’t want to change in terms of human rights, and their view of human rights is completely different from the rest of the world’s.
“I think the United States is being really naive about the way they’re bringing this about,” she said.
Republican senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, whose father fled Cuba in 1957, criticized Obama’s visit to Havana in an op-ed published by Politico, calling it “so sad, and so injurious to our future as well as Cuba’s, that Obama has chosen to legitimize the corrupt and oppressive Castro regime with his presence on the island.”