Week in Review: When will we know if the President’s trip was a success?

We’re going to get into a discussion of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, so please give the following observations a chance to breathe.During most of the Cold War, the speed of the arms race and the development of new weapons easily exceeded the ability of our diplomats to negotiate agreements to control them, which in turn exceeded the capacity of our politics to debate and approve them.

In this time, we live with a less threatening but ever present and concerning danger; that is, the news travels so much faster, and comes at us much more plentifully, than our capacity to absorb it. This, in turn, exceeds the ability of our politics to debate and understand how what is being reported will affect the way we understand our world.

Journalism figured this out years before the social media revolution accelerated the news cycle to warp speed.  They called it “instant analysis,” in which they interpreted reality the moment it began changing.  Nowadays, reporters and analysts and opinion mongers tell us what things mean before they even happen, and long before we can feel a change or interpret it for ourselves.

In this brief, we’ve succumbed to this tendency, from time to time, so we’re not too terribly pure when we point out others doing the same thing.  And here – yes, finally! – is how this tangent relates to the President’s visit to Havana which commences nine days from now.

As we have previously noted, the harshest critics of President Obama’s opening to Cuba have either already graded the trip a failure, or established a framework for trashing it ahead of time so they can quickly denounce it as it takes place.

Yes, we mean you, Investor’s Business Daily editorial board members, authors of “Obama’s Cuba Trip Showing Signs of Imploding.”  Yes, of course, we name you, The Washington Post, for writing that the president’s visit “will be an ignoble failure if he does not have a meaningful encounter (defined how?) with the island’s most important human rights activists.” The Post knows well the maxim, those who set the terms of the debate win it, but theirs is not the only metric for judging the President’s trip.

For starters, there could be progress even before the President sets off. This week, there were reports that the administration will announce changes in travel, trade and banking rules on March 17- which strikes us as a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Once the President arrives, if Cubans respond positively to his presence on the island, as we expect they will, that will serve as a proxy referendum indicating Cuban public approval of President Castro’s decision to end his country’s position of hostility toward the U.S. government – and, that in itself, will be a big deal.

Then, there is the matter of what the two presidents plan to say and do about the state of bilateral relations going forward.

By the end of the trip, we fully expect that supporters of normalization will count the trip as a remarkable success, and those who hate the Obama opening will be unashamed in their criticism of the trip as an abject failure.

But, we think the impact of the trip should be measured by a different and better standard; namely, by January 2017 and February 2018 – once President Obama finishes his term and when President Castro has said he will step down – will their successors build on the rapprochement or act to reverse it?

This trip isn’t a one-off, it is part of a process; a process that has been unfolding since the Cold War, albeit gradually even glacially, but one that has picked up momentum since December 17, 2014 when the two leaders’ made public their decision to normalize our countries’ relations.

This process is far from complete. In the United States, the work of normalization will outlive President Obama’s term in office, and that is why his administration continues working to try and make the new policy irreversible. The process, we believe, is also taking place in Cuba, but is opaque for reasons we all understand.

In fact, both countries are playing a longer game than the instant analysts who interpret the news for us will ever be willing to play.

But, in ways we find very refreshing, teachable moments about U.S. policy are taking place that we think are very important. For example, the public is learning that:

  • The U.S. embargo prohibits book publishers in our country from producing, distributing, and selling books and education materials in the Cuban market.
  • The U.S. embargo imposes regulatory barriers on Cuba’s breakthrough medical treatments from reaching sick people in the United States who will die or live lesser lives without them.
  • The U.S. embargo not only makes it illegal for Americans to visit the island as tourists, but also prevents U.S. hoteliers from building or operating hotels in Cuba to provide lodging for them.
  • Under the U.S. embargo, it continues to be a goal of our foreign policy to overthrow the Cuban system.

As these and other facts about our policy are becoming more broadly known as a result of the President’s trip, public officials and others in the U.S. are working harder, and more visibly, to change them.  Senator Amy Klobuchar is appealing to the administration to open up Cuba to investments by U.S. companies. MEDICC is offering policy ideas so that our people can lead safer, healthier lives, and publishers are arguing that “the U.S. trade embargo is harmful to book culture and runs counter to American ideals of free expression.”Most of all, the public is hearing in the plainest terms we’ve heard expressed a new point of view, a presidential challenge to the very philosophical or intellectual basis that have kept these harmful restrictions in place, which are so antithetical to how we see ourselves, far too long.

This is what deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term…Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”

Should these ideas have the attention and space to enter the discourse, and if they’re given a chance to permeate the discourse over the next twelve to twenty-four months, we think the President’s trip will be judged by history to be a huge success, because the new policy can’t really become permanent until the debate about it is reframed.

We’ll just have wait and see.

For more in this week’s Cuba news, CLICK HERE.