MEXICO CITY – Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Cuba is undoubtedly an historic moment, as it will mark the first time in 88 years that a sitting American president has set foot on the island. But superlatives are far less useful than a pragmatic look at the practical implications – for both the United States and Cuba – of Obama’s legacy-enhancing move.
In fact, pragmatism is among the main shapers of Obama’s approach to Cuba. He recognizes the failure of the trade embargo, in place since 1960, to push the country to strengthen human-rights protections, much less to move toward democracy. Thus, Obama has pragmatically – perhaps even somewhat cynically – decided to abandon trying to compel Cuba’s leaders to change their political system. After all, if the US had set a political opening in Cuba, or even a modicum of respect for human rights by the government, as a precondition for normalization of diplomatic relations, the two countries would still be at an impasse.
But while Obama may be burnishing his legacy by pursuing unconditional normalization – so-called “engagement” – what he is not doing is securing any actual change in Cuba. “Engagement” is, ultimately, just rhetoric.
Indeed, if engagement is supposed to result in political change, US engagement with Cuba is most likely doomed to fail; after all, trade and investment have done nothing to bring about a democratic opening in Vietnam over the last 20 years. Nor have 30 years of massive trade with, and investment in, China brought that country’s leaders any closer to democracy. If engagement entails setting aside matters relating to democracy and human rights, at least partly, it is still a sensible policy, if not a very altruistic one.