Obama at the Gates

What are the reasons behind Obama’s visit to Cuba?

This article was originally published in the conservative Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap on 24 March 2016. Mariann Őry is the head of its foreign desk.

We have been witnessing a historical event these days. Barack Obama is the first sitting American president to visit Havana since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The symbolic importance of his visit is clear, but the possible consequences are not so obvious.

Cuba possesses great geopolitical importance, since for many decades, and despite the end of the Cold War and the subsequent rearrangement of the poles of world order, this little Caribbean island has consistently remained not just one among many. First of all, Cuba is a socialist country, even if Obama’s predecessors did everything in their power, including their embargo, to crush it. By increasing ties with Havana, Barack Obama tacitly admitted that while there have been changes, Cuba yet endures. If we look at this rationally, we could say that what they couldn’t achieve by offensive means they are now trying to achieve through friendship. There’s not enough altruism, naivety, or confusion in the world to find even one, tiny bit of convincing evidence for why Washington would be interested in the survival of Cuban socialism.

On the other hand, Obama has many reasons to want to woo Cuba. A foreign policy project which he started and finished successfully would look good on his CV. He inherited Iraq and Afghanistan from Bush, and neither Libya or Syria can be seen as a success story, even though American diplomacy – or rather, the CIA’s actions – was and is heavily involved. And I won’t even mention Obama’s relations with Russia.

It’s far more than ambition. Havana is the gate to Latin America. Cuba is a decisive country in Latin American civilisation, whose nations comprise a strong alliance forged in a shared history and their common fight against Spanish colonialism. The Cuban Revolution made this alliance even stronger. So if Obama wants to win influence in Latin America, he can’t get around Cuba.

This visit is obviously not a positive indicator in the annals of more than half a century of Cuban socialism, but only in terms of the change expected by Washington – Obama, by design, only met Raúl Castro, and not Fidel. The leadership in Havana don’t want to prostrate themselves at his feet, either. In a tweet, Donald Trump called it a sign of disrespect towards Obama that Raúl himself did not personally greet him at the airport, sending his Foreign Minister instead. To call this an insult is of course an exaggeration being used as a campaign ploy, but it’s nevertheless a fact that Castro didn’t overdo his welcome.

Not that Havana has so many reasons to be grateful. Surely there is a sense of relief and everybody is happy about the end of some of the sanctions, but both the Castros and Obama know what soft power is. Those in Washington would probably be happy to see recent events in Venezuela repeat themselves in Cuba. Nevertheless, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Raúl Castro only a few days ago. This can be seen as a message. The Bolívarian revolution (the name Chávez gave to his movement) is much younger than the Cuban, and Maduro is not really Chávez, either – Chávez was defeated by cancer, not revolution, but his successor might face a different fate.

Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia is interested in ensuring that Cuba maintains good relations with all its neighbours. What else could the Kremlin say in this situation? It’s also understandable that he outlined Russia’s consistent opposition to the sanctions, primarily due to their ‘ineffectiveness and futility’. On this point, let me remind you of Russia’s Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukaev’s statement from last week: the Russian economy has fully adapted itself to the Western sanctions regime; in fact, whether it ends in a year, five years, or ten does not matter to them. So much for that.

Many European politicians fail to recognise Cuba’s significance in Latin American society, or let us say, market. Competition has already begun, even in Central and Eastern Europe: Austria’s President Heinz Fischer and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico have both already visited Havana. Nobody wants to be left behind.

As for the symbolic value of Obama’s visit: in 1989, George Bush was the first American President to visit Budapest. Four months later, socialist Hungary came to an end.

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