President Obama quickly and casually made history on Wednesday when he announced that after fifty-plus years of strict isolation, the United States will begin to normalize relations with Cuba. In a 15-minute speech from the Cabinet Room of the White House, Obama described the history of our Cuba policy, pointing out that it has been harder on the Cuban people than on their government, and that we have since normalized relations with other, more hostile regimes. “Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China,” the president said, adding “Let that sink in for a second. Fucking China!”
Well, maybe not that last part, but the president did go on to announce a series of steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba, including reestablishing an embassy in Havana, the release and exchange of prisoners including American contractor Alan Gross, easing travel, banking, and communications restrictions, quadrupling the amount of remittances permitted per year, and the release of 53 political prisoners from Cuban prisons:
The president’s announcement comes after a lengthy telephone call with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday, and months after an intercession by Pope Francis.
The move is not being met with unanimous approval, as expected. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) blasted President Obama for the exchange that secured Gross’ release, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tore into the policy changes, vowing to “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Rubio is right about one thing, this move could be a crucial opening for Obama to secure his legacy in the next two years. As Democrats in Congress eke out the last drops of productivity before the Republicans take over and shut down any chance at legislative progress or judicial confirmations for the next two years, the president has been reduced to hoping the GOP doesn’t punch his domestic priorities too hard in the nuts.
There is, however, a whole rest of the world to fix, an area in which Obama has much more leeway, but one which hadn’t been going all that well of late. Cuba offers a rare opportunity to demonstrate quick, drastic results for a hostile nation coming in from the cold. If the Cuba policy works out well for the Cuban people and their nation’s economy, which it almost certainly will, that will place pressure on other countries to follow suit. It will also tell regimes like those of Russia, Iran, and North Korea that now might be the best time for them to cut their best deal with the United States. After 2016, all bets are off.