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Obama’s Cuba trip will show him how it’s changing, but mostly hasn’t

A poster features portraits of Cuba's President Raúl

A poster features portraits of Cuba's President Raúl Castro, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama and reads in Spanish "Welcome to Cuba" outside a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, March 17, 2016. Obama is scheduled to travel to the island on March 20, the first U.S. presidential trip to Havana in nearly 90 years. Credit: AP / Ramon Espinosa

President Barack Obama’s arrival in Cuba on Sunday will provide the most vivid manifestation yet of the foreign policy he has championed since taking office more than seven years ago: A world in which the United States sets aside historic feuds to broker a more stable global order.

But after he leaves Tuesday afternoon, island residents will still be coping with many of the same problems that they have faced for decades: a faltering economy; a strict, one-party political system with little tolerance for dissent; and emigration of talented professionals.

As Obama — with hundreds of staff, reporters, business leaders and members of Congress in tow — begins to repair more than a half-century of enmity between the United States and the small but defiant adversary 90 miles from its shores, the administration is betting it will lead ordinary Cubans to do, in the words of White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, “extraordinary things.”

“We believe that by opening up space . . . for exchange, dialogue, connectivity, commercial opening, entrepreneurship, exchanges with civil society, that will help empower the Cuban people to live better lives,” Rhodes told reporters Wednesday. They will “be more connected not just with the United States but with the wider world,” he said.

In Havana, there was palpable excitement in the streets, many of them newly paved for Obama’s arrival. In the weeks leading up to the visit, the city has had an unprecedented makeover, with government-dispatched work crews painting over worn-out building facades and patching potholes.

An extensive shutdown of the city’s main thoroughfares is planned for the first family’s visit, adding to the aura of something big and unprecedented.

“I never thought I would see this in my lifetime,” said Manuel Pino, 44, a barber who on Friday morning recorded a video on his cellphone of Obama’s armored limousine making a practice run around the tight corners of a gas station near his house.

“The guy deserves recognition for this,” Pino said of the trip. “I think it took a lot of courage.”

But normalization is a two-way process, and in the 15 months since Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the countries would re-establish ties, official Cuba has been somewhat less speedy than the United States to implement changes.

The arrival of the first sitting U.S. president in Havana since 1928 — “without a battleship,” as Obama quipped the other day — still represents a threat to the Cuban power structure. For a country whose modern history was forged in rebellion, first against Spain and later the United States, fierce resistance remains to the idea that a more powerful nation might dictate the terms of Cuba’s path forward.

“Everything is changing in Cuba,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and professor at the University of Havana. “But it’s changing according to Cuban terms” — or at least according to terms set by the communist government.

The result has been a mixed picture of progress. Long-term political prisoners now number in the low dozens — greatly reduced from years past — according to human rights activists. Opposition demonstrations, once rare events with few participants, are now regular, well-attended occurrences. But many protests are interrupted by security services, and there has been a sharp increase in short-term detentions, lasting a few hours or days.

Internet access, once reserved for the politically privileged, has increased through state establishment of public hot spots, but it remains spotty and restricted. There are a few blogs — frequently blocked by the government — and limited access to international media outlets. All authorized newspapers, radio and television on the island are government-owned.

Most Cuban citizens who can afford it can now travel relatively freely abroad. But the number of those fleeing to the United States has soared in recent months because many fear a crackdown at home or a U.S. decision to end their unique access to permanent legal status.

State control over the economy has eased — a loosening that may have more to do with Cuba’s poor economic state than it does with any genuine political shift by the government. Roughly a quarter of Cuba’s labor force no longer works for the state, with many employed by a private sector that is prospering despite strict government controls.

American investment is still prohibited by the ongoing U.S. embargo, and businesses in countries without such restrictions have been reluctant to put money into Cuba. Many in the steady stream of U.S. business representatives who have made their way to Cuba since Obama began lifting restrictions on exports to certain sectors have been disappointed by Cuba’s lack of eagerness to deal.

“Change in Cuba in inexorable. But there’s no Arab Spring in Cuba. It’s not 1989 Prague,” said Julia Sweig, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Foreign Affairs, who has been visiting Cuba since 1984.

When it comes to the public debate in Cuba, she added, there’s less fear and less censorship, but major political reforms remain unrealized.

Some speculate that major changes will take place after February 2018, when Raúl Castro is to step down; others predict that the political structure will remain in place indefinitely under new leadership. But it is clear that the current Cuban president is hoping to be the bridge between the strict communist society his brother Fidel’s revolution brought about and the hybrid it has become.

“The Cuban Revolution is his brother’s legacy, and what happens after . . . is his,” said Dan Restrepo, Obama’s top Latin America adviser in his first term and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“His calculus is he thinks he can control the genie,” Restrepo said of Raúl Castro.

Obama’s decision to visit Havana has been sharply criticized by opponents of normalization, especially within the Republican Party. Donald Trump, the only GOP presidential candidate to offer support, has said he was “fine” with rapprochement, although he claims he could have forged a “better deal” with Cuba.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) denounced the trip in a statement Thursday. Cuba’s government, he said, remains “a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and fugitives.” Ryan added that he did not believe Obama “will bring up the need for reform during his visit,” even though the White House has pledged to do so.

“Instead, he is set to announce new commercial deals . . . that will legitimize and strengthen the communist government,” Ryan said.

But American and Cuban officials are betting that there is enough support in both their countries to sustain the policy shift, even if the next president has a different philosophy.

Yanetsi Azahares, 28, owner of the Gelato House, a high-end ice cream cafe on the Havana waterfront, said she was already thinking about the visit’s impact on Cuban tourism.

“I think a lot of Americans are going to see that he’s welcome here and realize they will be welcome, too,” she said.

What the Obama administration has done to increase engagement with Cuba:

  • Loosened travel restrictions to allow Americans to go independently on educational, “people-to-people” trips instead of in organized groups. A formal tourism ban remains.
  • Eliminated a ban on Cuban financial transactions going through U.S. banks, which effectively had cut off Cuba from the global banking system.
  • Allowed Cuban citizens to open U.S. bank accounts and use them to send remittances back home.
  • Removed Cuba from the U.S. list of countries with inadequate port security, making it easier for ships to travel between the two countries.
  • Approved “general licenses” for U.S. travel to Cuba, meaning Americans traveling for certain authorized reasons don’t have to apply for permission in advance.
  • Started restoring direct mail service. The first flight left the U.S. just before Obama’s trip as part of a pilot project.
  • Authorized some U.S. cruise lines to sail to Cuba. They’re waiting for Cuban approval.
  • Approved the first ferry service between the U.S. and Cuba
  • Struck an agreement to restore commercial flights. The Transportation Department will soon award the first flight routes.
  • Authorized exports of badly needed goods ranging from constructions materials to tractor parts, though no such trade has begun.
  • Approved the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. The assembly plant will build small tractors.
  • Allowed Cuban citizens to start earning salaries in the United States without having to start the immigration process, as long as they don’t pay special taxes in Cuba.
  • Reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Cuba also reopened its embassy in Washington.
  • Released three Cubans jailed in the U.S. Cuba released American Alan Gross at the same time.
  • Sat down with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama in the first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. and Cuban leader in decades.
  • Started high-level exchanges and visits between U.S. and Cuban officials.
  • Increased the amount people in the U.S. can send Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Earlier, Obama removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances.
  • Permitted American travelers to return with up to $400 of merchandise, including tobacco and alcohol products worth no more than $100 combined.
  • Removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
  • Authorized the commercial export of some communications and Internet devices including software, hardware and services.
  • Urged Congress repeatedly but unsuccessfully to lift the U.S. trade embargo.
  • Allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans, before the U.S. and Cuba announced plans to normalize relations.

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