Alex Keyssar on President Obama’s Historic Trip to Cuba

March 21, 2016
by Doug Gavel

President Obama arrived in Havana on Sunday (March 20), the first American president to visit Cuba in more than 80 years.  Obama has made the renewal of bilateral relations one of his signature foreign policy priorities during his second term, and during his three days in Cuba he plans to meet with government leaders and political dissidents. He will also deliver a televised speech to the nation on Tuesday.  We spoke with Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy, to hear his perspectives on the historic visit.

Q: What is the significance of the president’s trip?  

Keyssar: Most immediately, the trip is a ratification, and furthering, of the steps that President Obama has been taking during his second term to “normalize” relations with Cuba, by bringing to an end a failed and archaic set of policies that has been in place for more than fifty years.  It is also, of course, a belated recognition that the Cold War is over and has been for some time.  But the significance of the trip also runs deeper, much deeper, historically. 

The United States and Cuba have enjoyed “ties of singular intimacy” (to deploy a phrase from historian Louis Perez) since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.  Yet for most of that time it has been an asymmetric relationship, with the U.S. regarding (and treating) Cuba as a potential target of annexation, a conquered territory, a nominally independent country whose policies we controlled by law and treaty, and an arena of economic exploitation.  The Castro regime obviously changed that, but the upshot was not a normal bilateral relationship but rather the severance of nearly all diplomatic and economic relations.  In that long run perspective, the significance of Obama’s trip resides in its symbolic statement of the U.S.’s interest in treating Cuba as a sovereign state worthy of respect and friendship.  

Q: What does the president hope to accomplish in Havana? 

Keyssar: The core goal is to cement the changes in policy that have been taking place and, in so doing, to make them more difficult to reverse.  The president plans to continue conversations with the Cuban leadership about important matters such as trade, human rights, and democratization.  The trip also seems to be designed to offer Obama a chance to engage in a kind of public diplomacy, an outreach to the Cuban people — to affirm that the U.S. would like to have a different (and non-imperial) relationship with Cuba.  (Few Americans have ever heard of the Platt Amendment of 1901 — which gave the U.S. not only the right to have naval bases in Cuba but also the right to intervene in Cuban affairs — but all Cubans have.)  He will give a televised address to the Cuban people and also engage in some baseball diplomacy (underscoring one arena of great common interest).   The trip is something of a belated heir to FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s and his abrogation of the Platt Amendment in 1934.   

Q: How can improved U.S.-Cuban relations serve the international policy interests of each country? 

Keyssar: For Cuba, improved relations will have substantial economic benefits and lessen tensions with their large northern neighbor; it will also guarantee them a seat at the table in all hemispheric discussions.  For the U.S., the largest benefit will come in our relationships with other countries in Latin America:  American ostracism of Cuba has been a bone in the throat of many Latin American leaders (not just those on the left), serving as a constant reminder of an American proclivity to meddle in Central and South America.  Improved relations with Cuba will help lessen that longstanding tension.  Notably, the last trip to Cuba of a sitting president (Calvin Coolidge) was also aimed at lessening Latin American wariness of the U.S. 

Q: Despite the recent thaw in bilateral relations, the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba remains in place. What will it take for Congress to lift the embargo?  What will be accomplished by ending the embargo? 

Keyssar: I’m beyond predicting what it might take for Congress to lift the embargo.  Probably a new Congress — plus some visible signs of things loosening up in Cuba coupled with mounting pressure from American businesses who want to trade with Cuba.   Ending the embargo, of course, will be the definitive step in normalization of the relationship; its consequences — although hard to predict in detail — will reverberate throughout Cuban society (and probably in Florida too).


Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy

Photo credit: Martha Stewart


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