The embassy reopened last August, the first of a series of steps the Obama administration has taken to reopen Cuba to the U.S. Some of the biggest policy changes were announced in the weeks before his visit to Havana. The administration said it would resume commercial air travel between American and Cuban cities; lifted a ban on Cuban access to the international banking system, which would allow U.S. banks to process Cuban transactions in the U.S. financial system; restored direct mail service between the two countries; and eased restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. While tourism is still technically prohibited, the administration now allows “people-to-people educational travel,” which, as the Associated Press put it, “is so broad it can include virtually any activity that isn't lying on a beach drinking mojitos.”
Obama will meet with Cuban entrepreneurs Monday, and attend a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team Tuesday. The administration has also allowed Cuban citizens to begin earning salaries in the U.S. without first starting the immigration process, a change that would allow Cuban athletes to play Major League Baseball and other professional sports in the U.S.
Obama’s visit is being billed as a gesture of good will and an attempt to further cement the two countries’ new relationship before the Oval Office receives its next occupant. But distrust and disagreements persist between the ideologically different governments. Obama will meet with Cuban political dissidents Tuesday, and is expected to raise concerns to Castro about his government’s human-rights record, which Human Rights Watch says “continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism.” Obama will not meet with Fidel Castro, the 89-year-old brother of Raul whose revolution tore the ties between the U.S. and Cuba. The 1960s-era trade embargo on Cuba remains in place, and requires approval from Congress to lift it.
Still, Obama’s decision to reestablish ties bucked over five decades of bipartisan consensus, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently explained in his wide-ranging story on the president’s foreign-policy playbook. Obama “can see shades of gray in history,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, told Goldberg. “We had used the black-and-white version of history to justify Cuba policy that didn’t make much sense; that was far past its expiration date,” Rhodes said.
Recent surveys of Cuban Americans show the majority support the administration’s efforts to normalize relations between the two countries—even in Florida, where the Cuban American community, particularly an older generation that remembers well the 1960s revolution, has lobbied for decades to keep the embargo intact. Younger Cuban Americans, linked to their home country by familial ties and considerably less history, are more likely to support the policy shift, pointing to the economic opportunities that may come with it.