President Obama arrived Sunday in Cuba, marking the start of an historic trip in which he’ll try to further improve U.S. relations with the isolated island country and encourage its communist leaders to make life better for their citizens.
The three-day trip follows Obama’s announcement roughly a year ago that his administration and the Cuban President Raul Castro's government would try to improve diplomatic relations after roughly a half-century of acrimony.
I believe that the best way to advance American interests and values, and the best way to help the Cuban people improve their lives, is through engagement,” Obama said last month in announcing the trip. “I’ve always said that change won’t come to Cuba overnight. But as Cuba opens up, it will mean more opportunity and resources for ordinary Cubans. And we’re starting to see some progress.”
Americans have mixed views about the new alliance with the former Cold War foe.
Conservatives, including Cuban-Americans and others, see Obama's outreach as a disgraceful embrace of a government whose practices and human rights abuses betray American values.
"To this day, this is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and to fugitives," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit."
However, others argue that the impoverished living conditions under which most Cubans live will never improve unless economic deals are forged and foreign investment -- including the construction of hotels and other tourism investments -- come into the country.
The last time as U.S. president visited Cuba was 1928.
Joined by his family, Obama will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Castro in his presidential office. He also will sit in the stands with baseball-crazed Cubans for a game between their beloved national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
Obama also will meet with political dissidents, whose experiences have shaped Cuban-Americans’ outrage over the president’s outreach.
White House officials are mindful that Obama cannot appear to gloss over deep and persistent differences. Even as the president works toward better ties, his statements alongside Castro and dissidents will be scrutinized for signs of how aggressively he is pushing the Havana government to fulfill promises of reform.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez rebuked Obama ahead of the trip for suggesting that he would use the visit to promote change. Rodriguez said that many of Obama's policy changes have essentially been meaningless, and he dismissed the notion that Obama was in any position to empower Cubans.
"The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago," Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current government in power. He said if Obama was preoccupied with empowering Cubans, "something must be going wrong in U.S. democracy."
Obama's aides and supporters in Congress brushed off such tough talk from Cuban officials. They argue that decades of a U.S. policy of isolation that failed to bring about change in Cuba illustrated why engaging with the island is worthwhile.
Yet Obama's opponents insist he is rewarding a government that has yet to show it is serious about improving human rights and opening up its economy and political system. Though Obama has been rolling back restrictions on Cuba through regulatory moves, he has been unable to persuade Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo, a chief Cuban demand.
Two years after taking power in 2008, Raul Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society.
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