It didn’t quite have the shock value of Richard Nixon sitting down with Mao in Beijing, or of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addressing the Knesset in November 1977. But it came close: a military honour guard playing the US national anthem at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana to welcome Barack Obama – the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years – to his talks with Raúl Castro.
True, Mr Obama was there to seal the end of half a century of US ostracism and embargo that the rest of the world has long regarded as a vindictive absurdity. But his gesture will go down among his signature foreign-policy achievements, and one that may have a massive impact on Washington’s relations with other nations across the Western hemisphere.
For both countries, rapprochement brings real benefits. For Cuba, it promises a new buttress for its economy after the demise of the Soviet Union, its old patron and provider, and the near-collapse of Venezuela, an ideological partner during the Hugo Chavez era, whose support kept Cuba afloat.
Now US companies are scouting new investment opportunities. Major League Baseball teams from the US are seeking out Cuban talent in a sport beloved in both countries, while the gradual lifting of US travel restrictions to the island should produce a tourism bonanza, further boosting the economy.
For Mr Obama, the focus on Cuba is much-needed relief at a moment when his policies (or, his political foes would say, lack of them) in the Middle East and towards China are under fire, not only from Donald Trump and the other Republican candidates to replace him but also from worried US allies.
This is a president often criticised for his passivity. That cannot be said for the way Mr Obama has seized the chance of normalising relations and his realisation, which seemed to elude his predecessors, that Washington’s hostility helped the Communist regime in Havana, allowing the Castros to appeal to Cuban nationalism.
Obama in Cuba
Obama in Cuba
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a face towards a group of children in the audience as he stand on stage with first lady Michelle Obama as he is introduced by Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis Charge d'Affaires to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez upon arrival to the airport in Havana, Cuba
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle approach Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez as they arrive at Havana's international airport
US President Barack Obama waves after his arrival on Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba
US President Barack Obama carries an umbrella as he is followed by First Lady Michelle Obama after their arrival on Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba
The 'Air Force One' jet carrying US President Barack Obama touches down at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba
That card is now much harder to play. A friendlier US should only hasten change in Cuba. As for the traditional anti-Cuba lobby in the swing state of Florida, once a crucial element in presidential election calculations, it is a fading force, conspicuous mainly for its silence over what is happening. A recent poll showed Americans favour normalisation by a 58/28 per cent margin. Normalisation, moreover, could not come at a better moment for US relations with the rest of Latin America. Hostility to Cuba has long been an obstacle to closer ties; that stumbling block is now being removed at the very moment the continent’s two largest powers, Brazil and Argentina, battered by economic slowdown, are swinging to the right and thus ideologically in the direction of the US.
Mr Obama’s three-day stay will not of itself automatically bring improvement in Cuba’s treatment of dissidents. Indeed, every sign is that Cuba – like China now or the Soviet Union in the old days – has already carried out “preventive repression”, clamping down on dissent in order to ensure there is no disruption of a minutely choreographed visit.
But harsh treatment of political opponents and wretched human-rights records have not stopped the US having diplomatic relations with other authoritarian regimes. Neither China or Saudi Arabia are models of tolerance and democracy. Nor did Washington ever sever ties with the Soviet Union during the worst of Stalin’s savageries or at the most fraught moments of the Cold War.Reuse content