On March 21, President Barack Obama visited Cuba, thereby becoming the first American president to do so since 1928. With the visit mostly marked with photos of Obama shaking hands with Cuba’s Head of State Raul Castro rather than substantial negotiations between the two leaders, the president’s trip was considered by many as far more symbolic than diplomatic.
This relatively recent quest to ameliorate the United States’ relationship with Cuba has left many Cuban-Americans divided on how the United States should respond to this new era of foreign relations. One school of thought believes that any change in foreign policy is unnecessary, anticipating that no significant change will be made to help the Cuban people regardless of American influence. This perception is contrasted by a commonly held belief that the United States’ foreign policy towards Cuba is outdated and should therefore be re-evaluated. Given the stagnated nature of American foreign policy towards Cuba that formed 50 years ago, many believe that change is past due.
While political prisoners and a deplorable humans rights record persist on the Caribbean island, Obama’s push to open relations is a step in the right direction for both the United States and Cuba, no matter how small the step may be. For Cuban-Americans, this gradual opening of diplomatic ties sets the groundwork for restoring an identity that has been disfigured by a half-century long chokehold on normality. Travel restrictions combined with a trade embargo prevent Cuban-Americans from attaining a real connection with their homeland, contrasting the privileges experienced by most other immigrants.
The story of my family, defined by facing obstacles when it comes to finding a normal relationship with our homeland, echoes the experiences of many other Cuban-American families. In 1966, my grandfather led his wife and three young children out of Cuba. After years of pleading with the Cuban government, they were finally permitted to leave. However, the cost of freedom was high: my grandfather was forced to stop practicing medicine, work on a sugar farm in execrable conditions and consequently miss the majority of my mother’s early childhood. The island that had once mixed prosperity with a paradise dotted by beautiful architecture was transformed by the communist government into a dilapidated, propaganda-filled landscape, with emigration as the only possible savior for citizens seeking freedom.
Between the five members of the family, they were allowed to fill one small duffel bag of keepsakes. They were not only leaving behind their homeland, but also their most tangible memories ranging from baby pictures to beloved childhood toys.
Nearly 50 years have passed; my mother has never visited her birthplace. Decades later, vague memories of being harassed by government security guards as a five-year-old paired with time spent gazing at a pixelated map of her city on Google Earth mark the personal experiences of her homeland.
A re-establishment of friendly relations between the two countries which are separated by a mere 90 miles offers my mother optimism. The recent action of the Obama administration to normalize relationships between the countries provides a light at the end of a tunnel for those stripped of a homeland. The possibility for a visit, without the government mandating mounds of bureaucratic paperwork, appears to be in the imminent future.
Lifting travel restrictions and ameliorating the current trade relationship are necessary courses of action to retain a normalized relationship between the United States and Cuba. The trade embargo enacted by the Kennedy administration has spanned half a century, subsequently inducing a deterioration of the Cuban economy. This intentional deterioration serves little benefit for the United States besides further distancing itself from an ideologically different country.
A reinstatement of economic relationships could potentially assist in improving the human rights situation in Cuba. An increased American influence, even if it is just from American-based tourism and businesses, could bring democratic ideals to the communist country. Although only congressional action can repeal the embargo, gradual diplomatic restoration is a step towards such legislative action by opening up dialogue.
Those who oppose the United States intervening in Cuba argue that the reprehensible human rights violations will persist on the island despite restoring some economic and diplomatic ties. As long as the Castros continue to pollute the political landscape of the island, the 57-year-long pattern of incarcerating and exterminating political opponents will most likely persist. However, the conclusion of persecution can eventually be realistic given an increased American influence on the island. Expectations for an immediate and complete reversal in Cuba’s domestic policies, after a half-century long hiatus of discussion, are simply unrealistic. It must be realized that gradual action is better than no action. Opening a dialogue between the countries is more beneficial than stagnation.
Various government actions must precipitate the long-term goal for an American-friendly Cuban government that protects the fundamental rights of its citizens. Recent significant strides towards such a goal include the opening of the embassies and the scheduling of regular commercial flights to and from the island. Before an expectation for a changed Cuba can be justified, more short-term goals like the termination of the trade embargo and entrance of American businesses must be accomplished.
Obama’s simple yet symbolic visit is the most progressive and necessary step taken so far in accomplishing the restoration of Cuban-American relations. Not only does the visit act as gateway for discussion between the ideologically different countries, it signifies the beginning of a new era in foreign relations. It facilitates an opportunity for my mother to establish an identity with her homeland.
Brian Taggett is a College freshman from Kalamazoo, MI