Obama’s Cuba Trip Elicits Divided Response In US, Havana

President Barack Obama chose last year to chart a new course with regard to US policy to Cuba by reestablishing political relations with the island nation, weakening travel restrictions between the countries and allowing US citizens to import some goods from Cuba. He said the regime would be expected to reciprocate with improved human rights conditions and greater political freedoms.

As he prepares for a historic trip to Havana, it is clear the focus is on the economic side, and much less on political reform.

White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in a briefing call before the trip that “greater economic activity in the island is going to be good for the Cuban people” that will be “a source of empowerment” for the Cuban people.

“It’s going to improve their livelihoods.  And we’ve already seen that in the rapid growth the cuenta-propistas sector in Cuba, where you have a significant portion of Cubans who are now self-employed,” Rhodes asserted.

While many Republicans have strongly opposed Obama’s efforts to move towards ending the embargo on Cuba and renew trade with them, some members of Congress believe trade and economic liberty is the key to achieving political liberty.

“Economist Milton Friedman wrote that economic freedom is ‘an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.’ Far from being concessions, changes in our policy toward Cuba are reinforcing and advancing opportunities for Cubans in the private sector. Citizens who are totally dependent on government for their livelihood are subject to the whims of all-powerful leaders in a way that those who are economically independent are not,” wrote Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, in a recent op-ed.

On the opposite side of the aisle, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey took to the Senate floor to criticize the administration for not taking a tougher line on Cuba for its human rights abuses.

Obama’s trip also is being heralded by Cubans of African descent, many of whom face discrimination today.

“People here look at blacks like they’re the worst, and since Obama’s black it’s like we have a bit more of status, here and over there. Having a black president of the United States gives us just a little more pride,” Rosa Lopez, a Cuban who earns a living selling goods in a public market, tells The Washington Post.

There are many voices, however, who believe that political freedom and an improvement in Cuba’s human rights record must come before the regime of Raul Castro is rewarded, including many dissidents.

In a sign of the little progress Cuba has made in terms of greater political freedom, Cuban government authorities have ordered dissidents not to attend scheduled meetings with members of the Obama administration.

Some of those marching for greater human rights have called on President Obama to keep the Americans who marched for civil rights in the United States in mind as he travels to Havana.

One of the most well-known dissident groups, the Ladies in White, believe Obama should have delayed his trip until human rights improvements are made.

“It’s not the moment. He would be very welcome if things were getting better. But it’s not. Nothing has changed,” said Berta Soler, the leader of the protest group.

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