Obama Lands in Cuba

With his arrival in Cuba yesterday, President Barack Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island nation since 1928. This three-day trip is just one step in the major shift under the Obama administration to begin to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. For insightful historical perspective on what this trip means, we check in with some UNC Press authors who are providing helpful analysis.

William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh are co-authors of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. Kornbluh, who is on location in Havana, appeared on Democracy Now! today and discussed the handling of protesters and the political and economic strategy of Obama bringing with him on this trip CEOs and entrepreneurs from the U.S.:

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, Updated Edition, by William LeoGrande and Peter KornbluhLeoGrande writes at Huffington Post (in a piece originally published by the Cuban journal Revista Temas) that there are still hurdles yet ahead to fully normalizing relations between the countries. The first two hurdles:

The biggest hurdle to fully normal relations is the continuing U.S. economic embargo. In the 15 months since December 17, 2014, President Obama has licensed significant exceptions to the embargo, opening the door for more U.S. residents to travel to Cuba and more U.S. businesses to trade with Cuban enterprises. But the core of the embargo remains in place: Cuban state enterprises cannot export to the United States and most U.S. businesses cannot invest in Cuba or become joint enterprise partners with Cuban firms.

Since lifting the entire embargo requires that Congress repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton law (the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act), the embargo will not be lifted during Obama’s remaining time in office. In the middle of a heated presidential election campaign, Republicans controlling both the House of Representatives and the Senate will not take any action that makes Obama’s policy look like a success.

The second biggest obstacle to fully normal relations is the U.S. base at Guantánamo. The United States recognizes Guantánamo as sovereign Cuban territory, but it nevertheless refuses to return the base to Cuban control. For the foreseeable future, the top issue on the U.S. agenda regarding Guantánamo will not be how to return it to Cuba, but rather how to close the detention center that Obama pledged to close when he was elected. That has to come first.

Read LeoGrande’s full article, “President Obama’s Trip to Cuba: On the Road to Normalization.”

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Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, by Devyn Spence BensonDevyn Spence Benson, whose book Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution will be published next month, writes at Huffington Post about what the Obama visit means for Afro-Cubans.

On Dec 17, 2014, when Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, I emailed friends and colleagues on the island to see how they were taking the news. Daisy Rubiera Castillo, an Afro-Cuban intellectual, activist, and author of a 2011 edited collection on black and mulata women’s history and culture, cautiously told me, “we will see what happens.” She expressed cautious optimism that economic openings in Cuba would improve the everyday lives of Cubans of African descent.

Historically, Afro-Cubans have been among the last citizens to reap the benefits of economic, political, or social progress. In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, beginning in 1989 and the opening of the island to joint business ventures with European and Canadian enterprises, most new (and higher paying) jobs in the tourist economy have gone to lighter skinned or white Cubans.

As I discuss in my new book Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution, many of the African Americans who traveled to Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s incorrectly reported that the revolution eliminated racial discrimination. Black intellectual Harold Cruse traveled to Cuba in 1960 and said, “The two weeks I spent in Cuba were one of the most inspiring experiences I ever had.” Famed boxer Joe Louis spent New Year’s Eve of 1959 in Havana at party with Fidel Castro. Louis remarked, “It is really good for Cuba to invite American Negroes to the country. Colored people in the U.S. do not have any place to go in the winter except Cuba . . . [here] there is no discrimination.”

However, rarely did they look behind the curtain to see the how racism persisted in informal ways in Cuba despite unprecedented social reforms and national integration campaigns in the early 1960s. In many cases, African American travelers to the island were more interested in how the appearance of racial integration in Cuba legitimized their causes at home. Seldom were they exposed to the double speak Cubans of color so aptly use to both defend and criticize their country’s racial politics all in the same breath.

Read Benson’s full article, “What President Obama’s Visit to Cuba Means for Cubans of African Descent.”

Benson also talked to Roland Martin on WCHB. Listen to the podcast.