Obama is right to visit Cuba, and the US should get behind him in lifting the trade embargo

Speaking to Cubans on their own soil about free markets and expression has every possibility of bringing about change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 February, 2016, 11:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 February, 2016, 11:01pm

A succession of American presidents has believed that the best way to bring about change in Cuba is through diplomatic and economic isolation. The policy has been a dismal failure; Cubans and not the authoritarian regime that governs them have suffered. Barack Obama is therefore making a bold statement as well as history when he visits the Caribbean island next month. He is being lambasted by critics, but there is no doubt that it is the right decision.

The Cold War was driven by a mistrust of communism and it is that mentality behind the steadfast refusal of a minority in the US congress to lift a trade embargo imposed in 1962, three years after Fidel Castro seized power. It is outdated thinking, as Obama, a majority of Americans and most in the world well know; the US has no qualms about trade with China and Vietnam and has even had links with North Korea. Keeping the door closed makes no sense, which is why Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, announced in December 2014 that relations would gradually be restored.

Diplomatic relations resumed and significant dividends have come from the decision. Washington and Havana earlier this month signed a deal on commercial air traffic that will allow more than 100 daily flights between the nations. Some companies are already benefitting, tourist dollars are flowing into the Cuban economy and the US is being viewed more favourably by Latin American governments. The barrier to reaping the full potential is the steadfast refusal of some lawmakers, Republican Party presidential hopefuls among them, to remove the trade embargo.

They also oppose Obama’s trip, arguing that improved ties should come about only if the Cuban government reforms the economy and political system to improve freedoms and rights. They contend that there has been little sign of that in the months since diplomatic relations resumed and that the Castro regime remains as oppressive as before. More than 8,600 people that international rights groups consider political prisoners were arrested last year. As if to answer the charges, Havana last week announced seven prominent dissidents would be allowed to travel overseas and return, if they wished.

Isolating Cuba has failed, just as it has with North Korea. Engagement brings results, as the nuclear deal struck with Iran proves. Obama speaking to Cubans on their own soil about free markets and expression has every chance of bringing about change.