There is still a sharp divide in opinion over President Barack Obama's historic trip to Cuba, even though the two countries are very rapidly ending more than a half-century of alienation. The president left the island nation this afternoon after a whirlwind two-day visit, though the outcome of the trip is yet to be determined.
But the president did accomplish a number of goals that, for better or worse, no other U.S. president has achieved since the Cuban Revolution.
The culmination of Obama's visit came this morning with a speech to the Cuban people, during which he said, “I have come here to bury that last remnant of the Cold War.”
Video: Obama addresses people of Cuba | More: Read his speech here
In addition to his pubilc speech, Obama met privately with dissident leaders of the Cuban Civil Society at the U.S. Embassy. He acknowledged that human rights abuses in Cuba – including the detainment of political dissidents – is still a sore spot between U.S. and Cuban leaders.
“Much of this is a matter of us being able to hear directly from the Cuban people and making sure that they have a voice and making sure that their concerns and their ideas are helping to shape U.S. policy,” Obama said to reporters before the meeting.
“My hope is that by listening and hearing from them, that we can continue to refine our policy in such a way that ultimately the Cuban people are able to live freely and prosperously.”
Steve Eckardt, co-coordinator of the Chicago Cuba Coalition, thinks Obama’s visit to Cuba is a step in the right direction.
“It’s certainly welcome. All these steps toward normalization are real victories for the Cuban people. Uncle Sam has finally bent his knee to Cuba after half a century,” Eckardt said.
Eckhard said that in order to fully understand the politics at play, it’s important to get to know the Cuban people.
“I’d like to see a big wave of people from the United States going to Cuba and hopefully Cubans come here – musicians, artists, activists,” Eckhard said. “I’m very optimistic, because as people get to know each other, and the American people get to know the Cuban people, it’s going to put an end to a whole lot of nonsense.”
María de Los Angeles Torres, the director and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Obama’s push for re-establishing relations with Cuba came at the right time. Torres said that a year and a half ago, the country was on the brink of chaos and many Cubans were growing frustrated.
“I don’t think the opposition in Cuba is as organized as it was during the revolution that Fidel Castro led,” Torres said. “It’s an authoritarian regime. It’s a military regime. And I think that the opposition is very fragmented. My fear was that there would be spontaneous … outbursts in the streets that were going to be met with blood.”
Torres thinks the very fact that the two countries are talking is promising, but it will take close monitoring of human rights in Cuba.
“That’s part of the negotiations. The beauty of being on the table and talking is that you can put things on the table, so I think that this is a tremendous opportunity. How we proceed, I think, will be the question,” Torres said.
Dean Martinez, president of the Cuban American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, said that the circumstances of the re-established relations aren’t perfect.
“The opportunity was right for the United States to begin relations with Cuba,” Martinez said. “We view, from the Chamber of Commerce, and myself personally, we missed an opportunity where Cuba needed the assistance of the United States and the United States had the opportunity to engage relations with Cuba, but engage in relations in a manner to ensure that we see a change in policy towards the Cuban people, rather than hoping there’s a change in policy with the Cuban people.”
Martinez said he thinks a slower progression of reestablishing relations would have been better.
“We seem to rush immediately to try to get the president to Cuba to meet with Raúl Castro, rather than send smaller delegations and little by little create avenues and communication.” Martinez said.
Christina Perez, associate professor of sociology and the director of Women and Gender Studies at Dominican University, leads educational trips to Cuba for her students.
“I don’t think that Obama went too slow. In fact, this is a promise when he was campaigning in 2008, and he waited until the very end of his presidency to really fulfill that promise,” Perez said. “I think after 57 years of failed policies and isolation and blockade, really leaving the Cold War behind us and moving into a new time where we can agree to disagree, we can find commonalities and make friendships and connections. And we have so much in common, so much to share.”
“Dialogue and engagement is the only way forward, especially when the isolation has seen to be such a total failure,” Perez said.
Video: Obama and family tour Old Havana
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