On the day that President Obama was to arrive in Cuba in March 2016, Alberto Moreno stood outside his open front door in the unreconstructed part of Old Havana, a neighborhood where crumbling, faded buildings abut narrow streets, and the thick, hot air smells of dust, sweat and cooking.
“People always think Cuba is the worst country in the world,” said Moreno, a 30-something cook at a local brewery. “They think they’re going to see military people with rifles everywhere. But look around,” he said, motioning at the Sunday morning scene of chatting neighbors and sleepy pedicab drivers waiting for customers.
What Obama was going to experience in Cuba, Moreno asserted with no small amount of national pride, was “tranquility and calm,” and people jostling for a look at him and shouting, “Obama, Obama, Obama, just like it is in every other country” he visits.
And so it was. During Obama’s 2 1/2-day trip to the Cuban capital, those Habaneros, as residents of Havana call themselves, who crossed paths with the president ogled and shouted, while the rest went about their business.
But few Cubans were oblivious to the history being made. In the space of 15 short months, from the first announcement of normalization in December 2014 to the presidential visit, the official hostility that had defined U.S.-Cuba relations for more than half a century was over. Diplomatic relations were reestablished, nascent business ties were forged, and regularly scheduled American planes full of American visitors were about to descend.
In meetings with Cuban entrepreneurs and students, and a news conference and speech broadcast live on national television, the U.S. president smiled broadly and spoke of freedom and friendship, presenting a stark and vibrant contrast to Cuba’s dour communist leaders.
As Obama prepared to leave office, it was clear that the long-term objectives he set for the opening would not be achieved during his presidency. Although there has been some minor movement, state control over Cuban political life and over most aspects of the economy remains firmly in place. Arrests continue for dissent and free expression.
Still, the building of a diplomatic bridge across the 90 miles of open sea between Florida and the Cuban shore was a signature achievement, at least one successful item on Obama’s original presidential bucket list that no future administration is likely to reverse.
Although Obama has used his executive powers to ease trade, travel and other restrictions, only Congress can remove the remaining embargo and U.S. travel limits on Cuba. Bills calling for both have steadily gained sponsors.
But “the fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said last summer. “Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.
“That ship has sailed,” Rhodes said.
When Obama first proposed talking to the leaders of America’s most ardent adversaries, during a Democratic primary debate in 2007, he shocked Republicans and Democrats. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them . . . is ridiculous,” he replied when asked whether he was willing to meet with rulers of places such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Presidents of both parties, he pointed out, had maintained dialogue with the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War.
His comments caused “one of the first big hubbubs in my Presidential campaign” and sent shivers down the spines of aides who feared he would lose the important Cuban-American vote in Florida, Obama recalled in a recent interview with the New Yorker.
But his theory, Obama said, was that “Cuba is a tiny, poor country that poses no genuine threat to the United States.” At the same time, in terms of promoting change on the island, “in this era of the Internet and global capital movements . . . openness is a more powerful change agent than isolation.” Finally, Obama said he concluded, “if you are interested in promoting freedom, independence, civic space inside of Cuba,” things such as allowing money to be sent to Cubans would allow more individuals the wherewithal to build a future apart from government control.
Obama won Florida in the 2008 election and quickly used his presidential authority to lift restrictions on remittances and Cuban American travel to the island. Over the next several years, the administration chipped away at the embargo. But it was not until after he was elected to a second term that Obama set his sights on normalizing relations and assigned Rhodes to open secret negotiations with a willing government in Havana.
The Cuba dialogue went far more smoothly than concurrent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The Iran talks, during years of publicly announced meetings, were multilateral — with the administration having to deal not only with a recalcitrant Tehran but with its own negotiating partners, including Russia, China and European powers.
And because no one knew they were taking place — even the State Department was kept in the dark until nearly the end — negotiations with Cuba were shielded from the domestic political pressures that could have derailed them.
It turned out to be one of the administration’s best-kept secrets. Public announcements by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, astounded both nations. Although some in Congress denounced it as a capitulation to the repressive Cuban government, most appeared to agree with Obama’s observation that decades of antagonism had changed nothing on the island and that it was time to give a new policy a chance.
“Like so many people in both of our countries,” he said in his televised speech in Havana on March 22, 2016, “my lifetime has spanned a time of isolation between us. The Cuban Revolution took place the same year that my father came to the United States from Kenya. The Bay of Pigs took place the year that I was born. The next year, the entire world held its breath, watching our two countries, as humanity came as close as we ever have to the horror of nuclear war.
“As the decades rolled by, our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies. In a world that remade itself time and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba.”
Differences remained, Obama cautioned, and the two countries continued to be divided on their systems of government, their economic models and their ideas about individual rights.
But “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he said. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”