One year after President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the re-opening of an American embassy in Havana, and more than 50 years after the Eisenhower administration cut ties with the island nation's communist regime, Mr. Obama says he'll consider a trip to Cuba before the end of his term.
If "we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans, I’d love to use a visit as a way of highlighting that progress. ... I’m not interested in validating the status quo," Obama told Yahoo! News's Olivier Knox in an extended interview released today.
Although the United States embargo continues, Obama's administration has moved towards normalizing relations after a half century of embargo, removing Cuba from an official list of terrorist sponsors, reopening the Havana embassy, and relaxing restrictions on travel, among other changes. Critics have said the moves pander to Castro's regime, while the White House and some human rights advocates argue that an improved economy will help set the stage for improving Cubans' political rights.
A prospective presidential visit would make Obama the first in nearly 90 years, since Calvin Coolidge traveled to the International Conference of American States in 1928. Former president Jimmy Carter also paid a visit in 2011, when he met with former leader Fidel Castro. (Mr. Castro formally handed presidential duties to his brother, Raúl, in 2008.)
Among the conditions Obama shared with Mr. Knox are a chance to "talk to everybody," including critics and dissidents, who are often stifled by Cuban censorship.
"My hope is that sometime next year we look at the conditions there and we say, you know what, now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that’s been made but also maybe to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction," he said. Other international trips to oppressive countries, like Burma, have pressured countries to put a "fresh coat of paint" along Obama's route, but he argued that such trips pressure governments "to spruce things up" metaphorically, as well.
According to Human Rights Watch, freedom of speech is still severely curtailed in Cuba: although fewer political prisoners are given long-term sentences, arbitrary arrests and travel restrictions have increased. The release of 53 political prisoners was among Obama's demands when the two countries restored diplomatic relations last year.
Online activities may not be used to undermine Cuba's "public security, the integrity, the economy, independence, and national security" according to HRW's annual report. The percentage of Cubans with Internet access remains in the single digits.
When the American embassy in Havana reopened in July, many Republicans, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, criticized the move, saying the changes did little to secure improved conditions for Cuban citizens. Republicans offer similar arguments against lifting the trade embargo, contending that keeping it in place gives the US leverage to force changes in Cuban policy.
Obama, who holds out hope of lifting the embargo, rejects that argument. Pressed by Mr. Knox to cite examples of change since restrictions were loosened, the president pointed to new economic opportunities that he believes will introduce Cubans to American, and international, values and information, opening the door for future progress.
"The process is on pace," he told Knox:
Our central premise in this whole process has always been that for a small country 90 miles off the shores of Miami, that if they are suddenly exposed to the world, opened up to America and our information, and our culture, and our visitors, and our businesses, invariably they’re going to change.
Telecommunication development is one of the president's priorities. Only about five percent of Cubans have Internet access, but the Cuban government aims to bump that to 50 percent within five years, and has set up Wi-Fi hotspots beginning this summer, although they remain costly: $2 for an hour, where average monthly salaries are only $20.
In the interview, Obama mentions direct foreign hiring practices as another key step to introduce international standards in Cuba. Only about 25 percent of citizens are permitted to work in the private sector today, and many of those working for foreign companies are hired indirectly, through a state employment agency.
Different currencies are used in Cuba for locals and foreigners, creating a "bipolar economy" of ordinary Cubans and those who work in the tourist economy, as well as a black market for convertible pesos, the currency used by visitors. Some worry that the rift will further widen as Cuba adjusts to an influx of US dollars.