Cuba's President Raul Castro (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (L) attend a press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana, capital of Cuba, on March 21, 2016.
U.S. president Barack Obama kicked off his visit to Cuba last Sunday. During the trip, he and his family plan to visit Havana, watch baseball games, stroll around the ancient city, and maybe taste authentic Cuban coffee. However, the seemingly relaxed atmosphere of the visit cannot hide the complicated political calculations behind it.
First of all, Obama is trying to build a diplomatic legacy. A visit to Cuba at this time is of historic significance. The U.S. has long pursued a blockade and isolation policy toward Cuba. Although the overwhelming majority of the U.N. General Assembly asks the U.S. to lift its ban almost every year, the U.S. has always turned a deaf ear to those requests.
Since Obama was sworn in, his administration has gradually adjusted its policies toward Cuba and achieved a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations despite stiff resistance from within the U.S. This is another successful case of “Obama Doctrine” foreign policy.
The U.S. has now entered an election year. Since Republicans took dominant seats in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, it is difficult for Obama to promote liberal domestic agendas; diplomacy is one exception. For the sake of his legacy, Obama is making a real effort when it comes to U.S.-Cuba ties.
Besides concerns about his legacy, Obama is also facing impediments with regards to domestic politics. To achieve the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, Obama has claimed his constitutional rights as president, loosening restrictions on communication and flight access between U.S. and Cuba through executive orders.
According to the U.S. constitution, the president is entitled to great autonomy and discretion in foreign affairs, but that does not mean Obama can simply do as he pleases. The economic sanctions placed on Cuba were decided on by the U.S. Congress. To lift those sanctions also requires the approval of Congress. Meanwhile, it is not certain whether Obama’s successor will move forward with his policy.
Of course, it is likely not Obama’s intention to utilize too many political resources to end the embargo against Cuba. A few sanctions can be the leverage for future negotiations.
A third point to consider is that Obama has not changed his original intentions for policy toward Cuba. Recently, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the president has made it very clear that the future of Cuba is for the Cuban people to decide; the U.S. is just trying to help any way it can.
Even so, a longstanding foreign policy strategy of the U.S. is to export American democracy and values in order to influence target countries’ policies toward the U.S. Moreover, since the introduction of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. has regarded Latin America as its own backyard. Any movement can be treated as a threat to the interests of the U.S.
Obama’s Cuba visit also acknowledged the failure of past U.S. policy toward Cuba. Like many countries, Cuba’s anti-U.S. sentiment was not always such a strong force. The U.S. must understand that most anti-U.S. sentiment is a result of its foreign policy. After all, as a global superpower, the U.S. must take responsibility for the significant role its actions play in the evolution of international relations.
(The author is a special commentator for People’s Daily and a distinguished research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies.)