By moving forward with a bold new policy toward Cuba, President Obama is calculating that his successors will not want to -- or be able to -- move back.
In traveling to Havana, Obama is making good on promises both specific and broad. The images -- Air Force One wowing Cuban civilians, the president and his family shopping, and of course a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro himself -- serve as stark points of contrast to an American public that’s grown used to, if not fatigued by, a chilly relationship with a nation so close to its own border.
The president is practically daring the candidates who want his job to turn back the clock.
“This is a new day -- es un nueva dia -- between our two countries,” Obama said at his extraordinary joint news conference today with the Cuban president. “We’re focused on the future.”
Given the paradigm-shattering nature of the visit, responses from the major Republican candidates were fairly muted.
Gov. John Kasich and Donald Trump are saying they would have pushed for more reforms before normalizing relations. Trump taunted Obama on Twitter over the fact that President Castro showed “no respect” for the U.S. president by failing to show up to greet his airplane.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban-American who was a political prisoner in the pre-Castro era, was more expansive in his critique. He predicted that a free Cuba will funnel money to terrorists, and envisioned for himself a much different kind of visit to the island nation.
“I cannot wait as president to visit Cuba, but when I visit Cuba it will be a free Cuba,” Cruz said Sunday.
For generations of American voters, the idea of an open relationship with Cuba has never been a political option. Presidential candidates all the way through Bill Clinton -- who declared in his 1992 campaign that George H.W. Bush “missed a big opportunity to put the hammer down on Fidel Castro and Cuba” -- promised to get tougher with Cuba, not go in the other direction.
Now, Obama is turning U.S.-Cuban relations on their head with little apparent political consequence -- only in part because the president himself won’t have to face voters again. In polling shortly after the president announced the new steps in late 2014, more than two-thirds of Americans supported opening trade and ending travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.
Today’s joint news conference turned slightly awkward when Castro seemed to deny that Cuba has political prisoners. Obama didn’t respond, but he vowed to pursue “differences on democracy and human rights” that he would have to acknowledge are substantial.
But the president is calculating that Americans, including Cuban-Americans, are ready for a new start that can’t be stopped.
“There’s enormous hope that there can be reconciliation,” Obama said.