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Foreign Policy

Implications of Obama’s Trip to Cuba

Apr 11 , 2016
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Havana for his three-day official visit to Cuba on March 20, 2016. He was the first incumbent U.S. president to go there since President Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. Almost all major international media used ‘historic’ to describe the event’s significance. His delegation includes his family members, Secretary of State John Kerry, eight Senators, 31 Congressmen and 12 entrepreneurs. At the joint press conference with his counterpart Raúl Castro, President Obama said: “This is the largest such delegation of my presidency.” Why did President Obama visit Cuba at this time with a big delegation?

The first reason was to enrich his political legacy. The diplomatic relationship established between U.S. and Cuba, during his presidency is an extraordinary achievement for Obama. Also, he wanted to be the first president of the United States to set foot on the land of Cuba after the normalization of relations. Even before the trip, some U.S. media said that Obama was looking for his “Nixon to China” moment, which compared his visit to Cuba with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Obama made it.

Second, it was to continue and consolidate Obama’s international strategy. In terms of global strategy, President Obama made clear in his first National Security Strategy 2010 that the U.S. pursued “comprehensive engagement”, which began with closest friends and allies, but also included adversarial governments. It said “through engagement, we can create opportunities to resolve differences (with the adversaries)”. To a large extent, engagement in the Western Hemisphere, a region deemed to be the U.S. “backyard”, is the most important. Although there is no nation emerging to challenge U.S. primacy, anti-U.S. states do exist in the region. It forces the United States to take it seriously, because the Western Hemisphere (or “the Americas”) is the base for the United States to go global. It is necessary to improve the relations with the ‘hostile’ regimes and resolve longstanding regional conflicts for the sake of more effectively safeguarding and advancing US global dominance. The Obama administration has done a lot, e.g. trying to harmonize relations with Venezuela, supporting a peace accord reached between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (RAFC), promoting U.S.-Argentina relations, and especially normalizing relations with Cuba, which substantially ends the hostilities in the Western Hemisphere. President Obama addressed the Cuban people in Old Havana on March 22 with the words, “I am here to bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas.” Britain’s Financial Times, commenting in an editorial, said: “Mr Obama’s visit, though, is more than about mending ties and regaining leverage in an old cold war foe with which the US has few ties and less leverage. It is a keystone in the US’s broader approach to the region.” Moreover, Obama’s visit was intended to consolidate the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, “to make it impossible for Mr Obama’s successor to reverse course and abandon the attempt to engage Havana”.

Finally, it is based on the considerations of promoting American business interests and increasing the influence in Cuba. After the normalization of relations, it will bring huge opportunities for U.S. companies and businessmen in Cuba. On the eve of the visit, the U.S. brand Starwood Hotels signed commercial agreements with Cuba, the first such case since the Cuban revolution in 1959. In addition, Google also has a deal to expand its Internet access service in Cuba. Moreover, people exchanges between the two countries will increase steadily. The number of Americans visiting Cuba increased by 77 percent in 2015. In 2016, there will be about 110 flights to and from the United States and Cuba, which absolutely facilitates people’s travel and communication. Besides, there are some educational exchange programs extended to Cuba for the first time, e.g., the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas.

From Washington’s perspective, all of this will bring significant change in Cuba as well as improve U.S. influence and interests. Actually, in the past half-century, the U.S. government virtually alone maintained the isolation and hostile policy toward Cuba. But there was no regime change in Cuba or increasing U.S. influence and interests in that country. Consequently, the Obama administration changed the U.S. strategy and believed the new policy would work as expected. The “Fact Sheet: United States-Cuba Relationship” released by the White House said: “The President’s Cuba policy now allows us to more effectively improve the lives of the Cuban people, advance our interests and values, and build broader ties of cooperation across the Americas.”


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