Obama Wants to Leave Behind a Legacy in Foreign Affairs
There is a major stumbling block for Barrack Obama in the last year of his two-term Presidency of the United States in leaving a significant legacy in foreign policy by ending more than 50 years of enmity with neighbouring Cuba in the Carribean. Historic Initiative A historic initiative by Obama amid the somewhat subdued enthusiasm of host President Raul Castro, the younger brother of the legendary Fidel Castro, bothof whom are in their 80s. That paved the way for Obama's three-day visit to Havana last month from March 20 accompanied by his wife Michelle and two daughters, all of which was unimaginable for Americans. The visit by the first African American President has taken place after President Coolidge visited Cuba 88 years back in 1928. It should be viewed as a success despite the inherent pitfalls on the Capitol Hill. This is particularly so as it requires decisive action in removing the economic sanctions.
It is not going to be easy as the Republicans are in a majority in both the Congress and the Senate. It appears improbable for now and unlikely to happen any time soon.At the same time the bitterness of the Cuban leaders against the only super power in the world is understandable because of the economic blockade sincethe cold war era. That has caused incalculable harm to Cuba's development endeavours. This is evident from Raul Castro's remarks against the US administration. His elder brother Fidel Castro, 89, went a step further writing an extremely bitter and lengthy open letter to Obama that ""we don't want the empire to give us any presents."" Running into at least five pages, Fidel suggested Obama should ""reflect and not develop theories about Cuban politics. We are capable of producing the material wealth we need with the intelligence and work of our people,"" he added.
It is apparent the Cubans are deeply hurt because Obama avoided making even a courtesy call on the leader of the revolution Fidel Castro.Hope Floats At the same time Obama's sojourn to Havana has raised hopes and already led to ease of travel along with allowing Cuban immigrants to send remittances to their homeland thereby lifting the ban on Cuban financial transactions going through U S banks along with free flow of information to Cuba. After all politics and diplomacy is the art of the impossible. With the US and Cuba having been bitter enemies since the cold war era it might have been impossible to visualise an American President and his family walking down the old streets of old Havana in the rain carrying umbrellas or Obama meeting Raul Castro in the Palace of Revolution. It is widely seen as being uncharacteristic of Obama who has been circumspect and guarded in his foreign policy initiatives.
This assumes importance as diplomatic relations after being re-established were severed in 1961. After more than half a century the process of rapproachment began in December 2014 and in the last several months Washington unveiled certain steps including removing Cuba from the list of nations charged with sponsoring terrorism aimed at overcoming the trust deficit in the bilateral relations. Havana reciprocated by reopening its embassy in Washington. And Mistrust Not to Vanish Overnight Obama took the initiative of visiting Cuba hoping that the animosity between between the two countries might well be a thing of the past. The mistrust is not going to vanish overnight. The erstwhile Soviet Union which had helped Cuba and in its present avatar as the Russian Federation is keen for Havana to build friendship with the US. Cuba has held its own both in Latin America and during the disintegration of the Soviet Union even though it was largely depended on aid from Moscow.
Cuba's response to positive overtures from the US was essentially on account of its economic imperatives. This did not necessarily mean that Cuba had set aside its old grievances which came to the fore at the joint press conference addressed jointly by Obama and Raul Castro in Havana. Obama was candidly that he did not have the authority to lift economic sanctions. Only the Republicans can remove them. Under the circumstances it is going to be extremely difficult for the Obama administration to certify that a democratically elected government is in power in Cuba. The ordinary American is scared of Communism and dictatorship. This makes it abundantlyclear that both sides will have to work hard in normalising their relations. On his part Raul Castro will have to undertake necessary reforms which might be extremely difficult for the host President. He lambasted Washington for its continued intervention in Cuban affairs, saying ""nobody should demand that the Cuban people renounce their freedom and sovereignty. The future of Cuba will be decided by the Cubans, not by anybody else.""
What is critical pertains to what the next US President's Cuban policy will be. An incoming President is not known to disrespect the assurances given by his immediate predecessor barring the imponderables. Nevertheless the next generation of leaders by and large have been known to give weightage to strengthening the edifice of friendship created by the outgoing Head of State. Cuba's Economic Isolation
Obama himself felt that the economic isolation of Cuba was becoming outdated even though the sanctions were strengthened in 1961 creating bad blood among the Latin American countries towards the US. Interestingly he observed while in Havana that the US should not impose its values on its neighbour. However, Obama questioned Cuba's policies on political prisoners, dissidence and human rights. Castro drew pointed attention to the US record on universal health care and education guaranteed in the Island nation as well as race relations and economic inequality. Lifting of the economic sanctions assumes top priority for Cuba. Obama is working on ending the economic sanctions in a gradual manner while trying to build business relationships.
Political isolation and the trade embargo enforced by the US has caused great damage to Cuba and its people. As for the rest of the hemisphere, their dissatisfaction towards the US has also grown. Republican presidential aspirants Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were quick to dismiss Obama's trip to Cuba as ""misguided diplomacy."" Critics in Obama's Democratic party have questioned the President's approach as naive and dangerous. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez observed ""I understand the desire to make it a legacy issue, but there is still the fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake."" Then there are the optimists willing to bet that Obama and Raul Castro might well pave the way for a new chapter in their bilateral relations.
(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator. Views expressed are personal.)