What Does Obama Hope to Achieve in Cuba?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shake hands in Havana on Monday. There is little in the current state of U.S.-Cuban relations that could not be overturned by an incoming president committed to reversing course again. Carlos Barria/reuters

This article first appeared on the Medium site.

While much has been rightfully made about the historic nature of President Obama's trip to Cuba, the first by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years, there are more profound reasons for the trip that go beyond symbolism.

Some of the president's opponents, both Democrats and Republicans, have criticized his opening to the Communist regime because, they argue, the new policy has yet to produce any tangible results and, hence, only serves to reward the intransigence of the regime on issues like human rights and political reform.

Yet in spite of this criticism, and perhaps in response to it, the president's trip is trying to accomplish three significant things that seek to guarantee the longevity and success of his dramatic policy change toward Cuba.

First and foremost, the president's trip is attempting to accelerate the changes on the island that his policy reforms were supposed to set in motion but that have lagged behind.

By moderating and simplifying travel restrictions to encourage more travel from the U.S., increasing the limits on money that can be sent to individuals in Cuba and facilitating the financing of trade in foods and medicines, the Obama administration hopes that reforms in Cuba would likewise be forthcoming. But the pace of reform in Cuba has so far lagged behind.

The president has stated his belief that change in Cuba will not happen overnight, but some have interpreted the slow pace of change as evidence that the regime has no intention of reforming itself. Another plausible explanation might be that after 55 years of isolation and open hostility between both countries, bureaucratic structures and practices must be reinvented to reflect this new reality, one in which distrust and suspicions must give way for reform to take root.

The so-called Revolutionary generation—those who are most closely identified with the Cuban revolution—are now senior members of the state bureaucracy and have the most to lose if an opening to the U.S. significantly alters the economic reality of most Cubans.

While the decision to restore diplomatic relations is widely accepted within Cuba, the Cuban bureaucracy also remains deeply suspicious of the U.S. and its intentions and very much committed to ensuring a controlled opening that would preserve what they perceive as the accomplishments of the revolution.

Efforts by the U.S. to facilitate greater exchange and commerce with Cuba within the limitations of the U.S. trade embargo are running up against old inertia and suspicions on the Cuba side that can slow down the process of reform Cuba desperately needs.

The Obama administration faces two additional challenges on the U.S. side. There is always the risk that U.S. companies interested in doing business in Cuba will run out of patience with the limitations still imposed by the U.S. trade embargo and the slow pace of reform in Cuba and move on to other opportunities.

Additionally, with U.S. elections just around the corner and Obama's time in office closing soon, there is a sense that Obama has limited time to ensure his new policy is irreversible. The possibility of policy reversal under the next president is not considered likely among the president's team, but it is clearly on everyone's mind as well.

There is little in the current state of U.S.-Cuban relations that could not be overturned by an incoming president committed to reversing course again. Former candidate Senator Marco Rubio was the most associated with this position, but Senator Ted Cruz has also criticized the Obama policy. (Donald Trump has suggested he is for the new engagement policy and Governor John Kasich has not taken a public position.)

Taken together, these various factors have contributed to a growing sense of urgency about the slow pace of change in Cuba. The president's trip is an opportunity to accelerate the U.S.-Cuba agenda on several fronts before it becomes mired in a presidential transition or U.S. companies become disenchanted with their prospects in Cuba.

For this reason, Obama is using the trip to continue to press the Cuban government for greater economic opening and reforms and to adopt changes that enhance the climate for Cuba's growing number of independent entrepreneurs.

Finally, the administration hopes the trip will highlight what it believes are the broader hemispheric benefits of improved U.S.-Cuba relations.

A case in point is the ongoing peace dialogue in Havana between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas to end their nearly 50 years of armed struggle.

With Cuba hosting the talks, and guaranteeing the process along with Norway, the U.S. role has always been secondary. Nevertheless, the normalization of relations with Cuba also permitted the U.S. to appoint a special envoy (Bernie Aronson) to the Colombian peace talks to support the process and ensure U.S. interests were well represented.

Last year, Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, and FARC leaders set March 23 as a deadline for their negotiations. While Santos has recently tried to lower expectations about that date, there continues to be rumors that a deal is imminent and that a major announcement could be made during the Obama trip.

As recently as March 17, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly stated that he would review the status of the negotiation process. What role, if any, Obama might play while in Cuba is not yet clear, but his presence and Kerry's involvement, even if limited in scope, will underscore the administration's position that the U.S. opening to Cuba is not simply a bilateral matter but has contributed to improved U.S. relations throughout the region.

Beyond the symbolic and historic nature of Obama's trip to Cuba, the administration is also hoping for tangible results that would ensure the longevity of his dramatic policy shift. With little time left in his presidency, this is a critical moment in the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Eric L. Olson associate director of the Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson Center. The opinions expressed here are his alone.