One year after Obama embraced Cuba, what has changed?

The US and Cuba normalized relations one year ago Thursday. Small changes have begun to percolate, but there's debate over whether that's progress. 

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Los Angeles Dodgers player Yasiel Puig, from Cuba, holds a young baseball player as he poses for photos before giving a baseball clinic to children in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday.

When Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers rightfielder and Cuban defector, was able to return home for a baseball goodwill tour this week without fear of detention by Cuban authorities, it was a sure sign of progress a year into the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

So is the expanded public Internet access that Cubans now enjoy, something the Cuban government agreed to as part of the deal struck between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro a year ago Thursday.

And so too is the agreement the two governments reached this week to resume direct commercial airline flights between the two neighboring countries for the first time in decades.

But for all that has changed in a year between the two longtime antagonists, much remains the same, both supporters and detractors of Mr. Obama’s opening to Cuba say.

The five-decade-old US economic embargo on Cuba remains, with little prospect of Congress lifting it anytime soon, while critics of normalization say the policy has yielded no improvement in the Communist government’s respect for human and political rights.

“Certainly it was a big step forward and there was reason for the great elation last year when President Obama and Raúl Castro announced their intention to normalize relations, and we do have positive results to see from that,” says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat in Cuba who is now a senior fellow of the Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project in Washington. “However it’s been something of a disappointment as well,” he adds, “mainly over the inability to lift the embargo.”

Not just the embargo, but the status of the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the resolution of property claims between the two sides dating from the Cuban revolution also loom as stumbling blocks, Mr. Smith says, “These big, complex issues have us somewhat stymied.”

For their part, opponents of renewed relations say the Cuban government’s continued disregard for human rights and political freedoms is the strongest argument against closer ties – and proof that no amount of concessions will prompt the Castro regime to change.

“What we’ve seen instead of improvements is a huge spike in repression and in violence against the political opposition, repeated arrests of the same dissidents, and churches being shut down,” says Ana Quintana, a Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Because the Obama administration awarded these renewed relations without demanding anything in return,” she adds, “the US has lost its position of leverage.”

Obama continues to call for an end to the embargo, which he considers a Cold War relic, but no one expects the Republican-controlled Congress to oblige him – particularly not in an election year.

Progress, one person at a time?

As a result, analysts like Smith say they expect “official” change to continue slowly – even as a transformation in the relationship between the two countries accelerates as “people-to-people” contacts expand.

“A Congress rushing to lift the embargo isn’t going to happen,” Smith says, “but already we’ve seen a notable impact on the personal relations between Cubans and Americans, and that’s going to continue.”

More Americans are traveling to Cuba – although the embargo still prevents them from visiting the island (and spending money) simply as tourists. Academic exchanges and “educational tours” are quickly expanding. At the same time, the improved public Wi-Fi availability in Cuba and eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans mean that contact between the island and Cuban communities in the US now is much like that for other immigrant communities from around the hemisphere.

Some members of Congress marked the first anniversary of Obama’s opening to Cuba by hailing the impact of the “small steps” that Cubans and American have taken toward each other.

“As American business leaders, scientists, academics, and artists are increasingly engaging in purposeful travel to Cuba, they are forging important new relationships with the Cuban people and supporting the country’s rising entrepreneurial class,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement Thursday.

He called on Congress to “take steps to make the Obama administration’s advances permanent and lift all restrictions on American citizens traveling to Cuba.”

There is also evidence that the normalization of bilateral relations has prompted a surge in Cubans migrating to the US. A widespread fear in Cuba that “normal” relations will prompt the US to soon drop the special immigration status for Cubans reaching the US has led nearly 50,000 island residents to leave for the US this year. Cubans who reach US soil are allowed to stay and are granted residency, while those who are caught at sea are turned back. The number of Cubans arriving this year is more than double last year’s total – and about five times higher than in 2011.

Senator Cardin said the normalization of relations has resulted in “small but important changes on the island.” But he noted that the government continues to jail political activists and restrict “the emergence of a free press,” and he called on the Cuban government to make “meaningful progress” in “the second year of renewed engagement.”

Obama in Cuba

Critics say there's no reason to expect Cuba to change.

“A year of stepped-up attacks on the Cuban people’s freedoms should not leave anyone thinking that somehow there will be a positive transition in the second year” of renewed relations, says Ms. Quintana of Heritage.

As for the power of people-to-people engagement, Quintana says she doubts it can have much impact in the case of Cuba, where she says a fearful government does its best to limit contact between average Cubans and visiting Americans.

“Spending time with Americans is considered subversive activity, so anyone who does it in an unofficial setting is suspect,” she says.

But there is one American she would like to see visit the island: Barack Obama.

“President Obama says he hopes to visit Cuba in 2016, and I’m all for it – if he insists on meeting and marching with the dissidents,” she says. “That’s the kind of personal engagement that could be a transformative moment in this relationship.”

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