The last time a sitting U.S. president stepped foot on Cuban soil, it was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Nearly nine decades later, President Obama broke new diplomatic ground by visiting the neighboring country. The New York Times reported:
Shouts of “U.S.A.!” and “Obama!” echoed over the stone plazas as President Obama and his family made their way around rain-slicked courtyards in Old Havana on Sunday evening, savoring the adulation of Cubans welcoming him warmly despite a driving rain as he began a history-making visit.“Welcome to Cuba! We like you!” a man shouted as Mr. Obama’s entourage passed. Above, a woman applauded and hooted from her wrought-iron balcony.Later, a motorcade including the presidential limousine, adorned for the first time with Cuban and American flags, snaked through narrow streets where elated residents, their clothing soaked from waiting in the rain, hoisted cellphones and cheered the first sitting American leader to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years.
Following up on our recent coverage, it wasn’t long ago that the idea of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba seemed fanciful, and the possibility of an American president actually visiting the island nation – while hearing Cubans shout “U.S.A.!” – was almost impossible to imagine.
But sometimes, change can come quickly. Obama’s trip comes roughly a year after he and Cuban President Raul Castro normalized relations between the two countries, and about six months after the two governments agreed to open embassies in each other’s capitals.
We’re not yet near the point at which anyone could characterize the two countries as “friends.” On the contrary, we’ve been reminded once more of the Cuban government’s indefensible policies: Castro has relied on “preventive detentions” of his opponents in advance of the historic presidential visit.
But the broader point behind the shift is that ignoring Cuba for generations wasn’t exactly improving the country’s human-rights record. On the contrary, isolating Castro’s regime had the unintended effect of strengthening his grip. The hope now is that diplomatic engagement will create new opportunities for progress, since the old way obviously didn’t work.
And despite months of incessant complaints from Obama’s Republican critics about his foreign-policy achievement, the American mainstream is clearly on board with the president’s approach. Consider this new poll, released this morning:
As President Obama makes the first trip to Cuba by a sitting president in nearly nine decades, Americans are broadly optimistic that re-establishing diplomatic relations will be positive for the United States, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll has found.Sixty-two percent of Americans said reopening ties would be mostly good for the United States. However, the poll found that fewer than half — 40 percent — think it will lead to more democracy for Cuba. Instead, half said they thought it would not make much of a difference.Over all, nearly six in 10 Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba, and most favor ending the trade embargo, according to the poll.
Politico reported this morning that U.S. policy towards Cuba “is all but dead as a divisive political issue…. Republicans haven’t just retreated—many have found freedom and free market reasons to be actively and affirmatively for the reopening.”
The same article added that two bills are pending in Congress related to Cuba, one to lift the travel ban entirely, and another to end the trade embargo. Both bills are sponsored, oddly enough, by Republicans.
President Obama not only deserves credit for ending a failed policy, he’s also earned praise for winning the larger debate.