After historic visit, it’s a long road ahead for U.S. and Cuba relations

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meeting in early 2016 in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: Associated Press)

More than a week after President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, the reaction to the visit has been ambivalent. Responses hover between fierce, almost impatient optimism for the future of Cuba and a more critical – albeit realistic – acknowledgment of the long road ahead.

Many Cubans believe in the influential power of the Obama administration’s Cuba policy. They expect strengthening ties with the U.S., coupled with the growth of an emerging private sector, to lead to greater economic prosperity. A recent piece in the Havana Times echoed the optimism many Cubans felt when hearing the U.S. president speak at the Gran Teatro de la Havana, describing the two nations as neighbors, and even friends. Obama’s words also resounded with many Cuban-Americans who, for decades, lived conscious of the bubbling tension between Washington and Havana.

Others were more critical toward Obama’s visit. Some say the visit actually served to enable the Communist regime. Others demand stronger language in support of human rights, freedom for the political prisoners and other changes, particularly opening up the Cuban economy. Former dictator Fidel Castro was even less thrilled with Obama’s speech, making his disapproval clear in a scathing piece published soon after Obama’s departure in Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma.

“We don’t need the imperio (empire) to give us anything,” Castro said in the article, adding that Cuba is capable of producing all the food and material goods it needs. He dismissed Obama’s comments as “honey-coated” and highlighted the many U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuba’s Communist government in the past.

Although controversial, Obama’s visit undeniably stirred up a critical conversation about the future of Cuba and Cuba-U.S. relations. When asked about Castro’s comments, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded that the “fact that the former president felt so compelled to respond…is an indication of the significant impact of [President Obama’s] visit.”

In his speech, the president kept his tone mostly positive, emphasizing the potential for social and economic change, which lies in the hands of self-employed workers: a small sector of the economy that is very limited by high taxes and government oversight. Obama also reiterated boundaries set between the neighboring nations, stressing that Cubans are responsible for carving their own destiny.

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity or the intention to impose change on Cuba,” Obama said in his speech. “What changes come will depend on the Cuban people.”

But while Cubans show a growing optimism for their nation’s future, these high expectations may potentially pose a risk. If Cuba doesn’t see tangible progress soon, its citizens are bound to continue leaving for the United States as they have been since the two countries began to restore diplomatic relations. The time crunch is becoming ever more clear as, across the island, Cubans struggle to make ends meet and show increasing impatience for reform.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com