Earlier this month, Ben Rhodes, the architect of Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, characterized the full restoration of U.S.-Cuban relations—in other words, Congress lifting the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo against the island—as inevitable and imminent. It would be the next domino to fall after the first U.S. presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years, the first authorization of commercial flights from America to Cuba in five decades, the first sales of Cuban coffee to the U.S. market, and so on.
“The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen,” Rhodes said. “Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”
As the Obama administration seeks to cement one of its principal foreign-policy achievements, it’s worth pausing to unpack that complex word: “desire.” Rhodes is right that the majority of Americans and Cubans support re-establishing ties between the two nations. Yet most Americans and Cubans don’t think re-established ties will bring more democracy to Cuba’s one-party state. In one 2015 poll, just over 50 percent of Cubans said they were dissatisfied with the country’s political system and wanted more political parties than the Castros’ Communist Party. But roughly the same percentage didn’t think their country’s new relationship with the United States would change the Cuban political system (Cubans were more likely to anticipate change in their widely despised economic system). They desire normal relations with America. But many also desire democracy. And they don’t expect the former to lead to the latter.