Why should Obama visit Cuba?

Editor’s Note: Originally from Cuba, retired U.S. Army Col. Manuel Supervielle served as general counsel of U.S. Southern Command 2000 - 2003, responsible for U.S. military legal affairs in Latin America including detention operations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also served as general counsel for U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan 2005 - 2006. He is co-founder of Veritas Assurance Partners, which provides risk management advice and support to clients in Latin America and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Manuel Supervielle left Cuba with his family at the age of 4

He served in U.S. military as chief general counsel for U.S. Southern Command, Afghanistan and U.S. forces in Latin America

Supervielle calls Obama's move bold and says history will tell us if it was right

CNN  — 

I returned to Cuba in June 2009, 48 years after leaving with my family at the age of 4.

It was a deeply emotional experience. I was finally able to connect the images long-stored deep within my memory with tangible reality.

Talking with the people opened my eyes: Lawyers, former officials and academics complained bitterly of the embargo and saw no end in sight. Shopkeepers complained about the lack of goods and materials that the people needed for daily life. One man couldn’t fix a leaky roof in his shop because of a lack of simple building materials and tools. Taxi drivers and hotel employees often held advanced degrees because contact with foreign tourists meant tips that paid significantly more than a job in their professional fields.

In subsequent trips in 2010 and 2011, I saw increasing resignation and anxiety, especially among younger Cubans. Many saw only two options: Endure a difficult life in Cuba with little opportunity or try to get out, legally or otherwise.

Then came a historic day: December 17, 2014, when the United States and Cuba announced their mutual intent to normalize diplomatic relations and re-establish economic and cultural contacts. Americans greeted the news favorably but with little fanfare.

In Cuba, however, the news had a more dramatic effect. Many felt as if a dark curtain had been lifted and tropical sunshine shone for the first time on their future.

Cubans gathered around TVs at home and in public places crying with joy, hugging, laughing, dancing and singing as they listened to President Raul Castro’s speech.

Instantly, most Cubans felt a new sense of “esperanza para el futuro” (hope for the future) for themselves and their children.

During visits in 2015, I sensed genuine and joyful “esperanza” from my cousins and friends and others. For the first time in a very long time, they had good reason to believe their lives could improve.

Since the historic announcement, both governments have taken steps toward improved relations.

The United States has made it easier for its citizens to travel to Cuba, authorized limited commercial flights and maritime travel, expanded the list of U.S. exports to Cuba and authorized certain services by U.S. companies on the island such as public infrastructure projects.

In taking these actions, the United States hopes to help improve the quality of public services, increase access to the Internet and telecommunications and inspire more privately owned businesses, all intended for the benefit of ordinary citizens.

For its part, the Cuban government has expanded the list of authorized activities.

Cubans can, within certain limitations, pursue ventures in private business, sell homes and cars to each other and travel abroad. In addition, the use of public Wi-Fi is now available in public places on a very limited basis.

The Cuban government opened the Mariel Port Special Zone wherein foreign companies are given incentives to start businesses that would employ Cubans for manufacturing and exporting Cuban-made goods.

Of symbolic and practical significance, the United States and Cuba opened embassies in summer 2015, marking a major milestone in the new U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Now, another historically important milestone will take place: U.S. President Barack Obama is visiting Cuba this week. Some say this is a step too far.

Critics say the United States has already made too many concessions in exchange for too little from the Cuban government.

The strongest criticism is that Cuba refuses to release all of its political prisoners – freedom of assembly and speech remain restricted, multiple party elections are prohibited and compensation for confiscated properties remains unresolved.

These criticisms are well-founded. But it is important to remember that the embargo – really a complex web of laws referred to as “the embargo” – remains largely in place. Congressional action is required to relax or eliminate these legal restrictions and that has not so far happened.

The Cuban government and most citizens are very critical of the continuing embargo and from their point of view, it remains the largest obstacle to normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

Both sides have a long way to go before either feels satisfied, and there will always be some left dissatisfied. Despite the more than half-century since the break in diplomatic relations, painful memories and personal rancor remain fresh for many people on both sides of the Florida Straits, making emotional and political reconciliation difficult.

And yet the “esperanza” created by the new opening is a powerful force. Critics of the normalization process should not discount how potent hope can be in shaping liberal economic reform and democratic expectations.

Cubans now anticipate improvements in public services such as transportation, communications, water and power service, health care, education and the freedom to pursue private commercial enterprise. Of course this is a double-edged sword: If the expectations remain unfulfilled after a reasonable period, the magic of hope will vanish.

As Obama visits Cuba, the people will express their sense of joy, hope and gratitude that could be the foundation of a new future between our two nations. It is a bold move by the President during a tenuous and pivotal time in U.S.-Cuba relations. But with boldness comes risk and only time will tell us whether the risk here was worth the reward.

My hope, my “esperanza,” is that the Cuban people will take full advantage of this new opportunity to improve their lives. I’m betting that they will.

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