Washington, Feb 19 (IANS) Barack Obama will head to Cuba next month for the first visit by a US president to the Caribbean island nation in 88 years, in a trip fraught with controversy at home though it is being hailed across the world as a progressive development.
Obama announced last summer the re-establishment of relations with the island nation in a historic move, putting an end to the chill that has featured relations between the two neighbours for more than 50 years, Xinhua reported.
But critics in the Republican Party and among the Cuban-American community have decried the move, saying the Obama administration would give Cuba what they called undeserved recognition and would get nothing in return.
In an online post after the trip’s announcement, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes wrote: “There is much more that can be done — by the US and by the Cuban government — to advance this opening in ways that will be good for Cubans, and good for the United States. That is why President Obama is travelling to Cuba.”
But many Republicans continue to view Cuba in an unfavourable light. Two of the biggest critics of Obama’s move are Republican presidential hopefuls Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio.
Experts said both of them have a shot at clinching the Republican nomination for the 2016 race to the White House.
Both senators, sons of Cuban immigrants, hold opinions that reflect a long-standing argument among the Cuban-American community — namely, Washington should not open up to full relations with Havana till certain stipulations are met on issues such as human rights.
In a Wednesday speech on his campaign trail, Rubio said Cuba is “anti-American”, reflecting the opinions of a large chunk of the Cuban-American community. Cruz has also slammed Obama’s Cuba policy as a kind of “weakness and appeasement”.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, also criticised Obama’s visit, alleging on Thursday that “Cuban workers continue to be exploited”.
The US-based experts are split over whether re-establishing US-Cuban ties is a positive move.
Ana Rosa Quintana, Heritage Foundation’s Latin America analyst, said Cuba has made no concessions whatsoever to the US, reflecting a common argument that the island nation has given the US nothing in exchange for re-established ties with Washington.
She added that re-establishment of relations between the two countries without pre-conditions sends out wrong messages.
Although official ties have once again been established, it remains doubtful that the US trade embargo will be fully lifted anytime soon.
The embargo has been in effect since 1962 amid the Cold War, as the US worried that Cuba would be allied with the Soviet Union in its back yard.
In 1996, the embargo was codified into US law and put under Congressional control, with only the Congress having the full power to reverse it.
Though Obama has chipped away at some stipulations within the embargo, most of the sanctions still exist. It is unlikely that the Republican-led Congress will overturn the embargo.
The US Congress has been unwilling to work with Obama on lifting the embargo, according to Quintana.
“(Obama) is weakening the embargo. He says you know what, I disagree with it, I’m going to see what I can do to undermine it,” she said.
Brookings Institution’s senior fellow Darrell West said Obama wants to push along the relationship with Cuba so the next president can’t roll back his rapprochement.
“His goal is to open up trade and investment and put the policy back on a more normalised basis. Opening up trade will boost the Cuban economy and generate more trade and commerce between the two nations,” West said.
“There is likely to be a flood of American tourists to Cuba so that will encourage the construction of new hotels and restaurants. Cuba likely will be a popular destination for many American businesses,” he added.