United States President Barack Obama appears hell-bent on proving that the last two years of his presidency can be productive, legacy-framing years rather than be the ineffective ones that everyone presumes them to be. He recently agreed a landmark climate deal with China, passed executive orders on immigration and has now taken the historic decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Cuba — reversing a policy of isolation that has been in place since 1961.
It is a measure of how the US’ political discourse can be captured by special interests that Cuba was held up as an ideological enemy for over 20 years after the end of the Cold War, while Washington transacted with other undemocratic regimes. Mr Obama admitted as much to the anomaly when he pointed that the US had relations with both Vietnam, with whom it waged a war, and with a one-party state like China.
In fact, Mr Obama’s speech on Cuba, which was geared to convince the American public and Congress, must be read as a masterly expression of contrition, rarely articulated by a head of State. He conceded that US policy was “outdated” and that it “failed to advance US interests”. He pointed out that no other nation joined the US in imposing sanctions which (anyway) had little effect beyond providing an excuse for the Castro regime to place restrictions on its people. He said it was time to change a “rigid policy” that was “rooted in events that took place before most of us were born”.
Mr Obama acknowledged that Cuba might well continue to pursue foreign policies that were at odds with those of the US, but said only engagement would move the country in a different direction.
This is a transformative moment for Cuba even if the US embargo remains till Congress lifts it. The US will have an embassy at Havana, Cuba will attend the Summit of the Americas, US businesses and financial institutions will transact in Cuba, limits on remittances for humanitarian work and the private sector are to lifted — and Americans will be able to use credit cards on the island, including presumably for healthcare, which Cuba is renowned for. Mr Obama is making sure that Congress will not deny him this claim on history.