Column: Opening relations with Cuba central to Obama’s historic legacy

The stars and stripes and the Cuban national flag are placed together on the dashboard of a vintage American convertible in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. President Barack Obama said that he will visit Cuba on March 21-22, making him the first sitting president in more than half a century to visit the island nation. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The stars and stripes and the Cuban national flag are placed together on the dashboard of a vintage American convertible in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. President Barack Obama said that he will visit Cuba on March 21-22, making him the first sitting president in more than half a century to visit the island nation. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

About one month after his final State of the Union address and amidst current condemnation from Republicans that he is a now a “lame duck,” there has been a touching show of vulnerability from President Obama, in many ways countering the powerful, sweeping message of his 2008 candidacy and historic election, described by the The New Yorker eight years ago as “the beginning of a new era” and “the resurgence of America’s ability to astonish and inspire.” 

In addition to visible frustration over the inability to pass gun control reform, progress but remaining grave concerns over the state of race relations, Obama candidly confessed in his State of the Union address that the failure to deliver on his promise of fixing Washington politics is one of the greatest, personal regrets of his presidency.

“It’s one of my few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

And yet, make no mistake: President Obama will be remembered as one of our country’s great modern presidents. Although often overpowered by voices of opposition, he has been meticulously crafting his legacy – with achievements both of symbolic power and on the policy level. Universal healthcare reform, recovering from the Great Recession, the first president to openly support gay marriage, LGBT rights, make the environment a priority – and of course, our nation’s first African-American president. 

Normalizing relations with Cuba, since the United States severed diplomatic ties in 1961 during the height of the Cold War, is yet another central, often understated accomplishment that will secure Obama’s place in history.

While there still are ways to go, his leadership with Cuba has shaped our foreign policy, our place on the world stage as leaders by example in diplomacy, as well as reaffirmed our very national identity – in how we value the expansion of opportunity, democracy, and human rights to all persons. 

This past Thursday, the White House announced that President Obama will visit Havana, Cuba in March, the first sitting president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The visit signals a dramatic step forward in this new chapter of US-Cuba relations, put into motion back in December 2014 when Obama made the historic announcement, and when the American flag was re-raised this past August in Havana, signaling the opening of the U.S. embassy. 

Since, there have been many bright signs of progress in addition to embassy openings and diplomatic visits, such as prisoner exchanges, increasing Cuban access to the Internet and other 21st century technology, the loosening of travel restrictions, and cooperation on the environmental sustainability according to a one-year progress report by The Guardian.

According to the World Bank, the Cuban economy is expected to grow at a faster rate than Latin America, which is significant although attributable to a variety of factors besides just the normalization process.

And yet, there still remains serious work to be done. A Cuban man who runs a tourism company, a sector that has seen much success since the December 2014 announcement, told The Guardian: “The average Cuban has seen no change and probably won’t until they lift the embargo. The embargo is what keeps shops shelves empty and makes it hard to source products even in other countries.” 

Lifting the embargo, the longest trade and financial embargo in modern history, would require serious and sustained Congressional action, as it would need to be dismantled piece by piece. In the meantime, President Obama has continued moving forward, his presidential visit being a clear example of such leadership, doing what he can within his executive power and the U.S. Department of State. 

In a Town Hall with the Democratic presidential candidates this past Thursday, moderator Chuck Todd asked, quite bluntly, “What has Cuba done to deserve a presidential visit?” Critics of President Obama claim that normalizing relations “rewards” Cuba for decades of human rights violations under the Castro regime and is a loss of leverage for the United States government.  

This view, and question, misses the mark completely. If this is a question of “deserving”, the people of Cuba deserve an end to this outdated, ineffective policy now more than ever, especially as the Castro brothers face their inevitable, timely decline and the nation looks forward towards a new chapter.

Obama’s new policy is an opportunity for real change and progress, in terms of economic development, human rights, and democracy. The idea that an absence of diplomacy and true American leadership would have any positive effect on either the United States or Cuba is fundamentally mislead. 

“Cuba will not change overnight,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor said, “But the guiding principle of our Cuba policy – our North Star – remains taking steps that will improve the lives of the Cuban people.” 

Obama’s legacy, as seen in Cuba and other areas, will be one of slow but meaningful progress. Thank you, Mr. President.