President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba is the latest move in a series that spans his tenure in the White House and occurs in the context of long-term hostility between the two countries. President Calvin Coolidge was the last U.S. chief executive to visit the island nation, in early 1928.
At the end of May 2015, the United States formally removed Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. This greatly facilitates interchange between the two sides. Of particular significance, banking restrictions have been lifted.
Slowly but also surely, the ruthless dictatorship that controls Cuba has been forced to face the reality of economic failure of communism. Fidel Castro began transition of power to younger brother Raul Castro in 2006. Four years later, Fidel suddenly re-emerged in the media spotlight and proceeded dramatically to lament the shambles of the nation’s economy.
At the same time, the Cuban government announced layoffs of 500,000 workers, combined with liberalization designed to encourage small business and foreign purchases of real estate. This was admission of failure by Cuba’s committed Communist leaders. Havana now seeks foreign investment while maintaining political controls.
In 2009, the U.S. loosened extremely tight restrictions on travel and financial remittances. Additionally, telecommunications companies were allowed to pursue licensing agreements.
The Soviet Union, a vital subsidy source, collapsed a quarter century ago. Venezuela provides limited aid, further reduced by the rapid decline in oil prices.
Enemies as well as admirers agree Fidel Castro demonstrated strong leadership before age and illness led him to retire. After taking power in early 1959, enforcer brother Raul handled bloody mass executions with efficient dispatch.
Fidel highlighted new alliance with the Soviet Union by joining Nikita Khrushchev in a 1960 visit to the United Nations in New York. The Soviet premier was wildly disruptive at U.N. sessions, while the Cuban delegation provided a media sideshow, based at a Harlem hotel.
The Eisenhower administration began a clandestine effort to overthrow the increasingly radical regime, including a CIA project to assassinate Castro. The successor Kennedy administration vastly escalated such efforts.
When Fidel stepped down, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed “peaceful, democratic change” in that nation and suggested that the “international community” work directly with the people. Obama’s televised address in Cuba took a page from the playbook of President Richard Nixon, who made a radio and TV speech to the Soviet people during his historic May 1972 visit.
We should emphasize educational and family exchanges, along with trade and investment. President Dwight D. Eisenhower used such programs to benefit during the height of the Cold War.
Above all, we should reject direct attacks on the Cuba regime. Previous aggressive interventions were highly counterproductive, and for many years have provided the Castro brothers with the benefit of blaming all problems on the Yankee superpower to the north.
In the past, Cuba has been extremely important in U.S. presidential politics. Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kennedy fanned the flames of hostility to Castro in the 1960 contest with Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.
This year, some Republicans have strongly denounced the rapprochement with Cuba, but Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the Obama delegation. A bipartisan congressional delegation visited Cuba in February.
During a joint press conference with Obama, Raul Castro clearly was taken aback by blunt questions from reporters about human rights abuses. Let the questions — and the pressure — continue.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War." He can be reached at email@example.com.