Obama’s Trip to Cuba: The New Era of U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Author: Caroline Moot


On March 21st, 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president in 88 years, since the term of Calvin Coolidge in 1928, to visit the island of Cuba. His visit sent powerful reverberations through both countries that echoed throughout Latin America, highlighting the opportunities for change that Obama has promised since 2008, and that LAWG and our dedicated supporters like you have fought for over the last two decades.

Press conference Havana

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shake hands at a joint press conference in Havana on March 21, 2016 during Obama’s historic trip to Cuba. Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy, White House via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama’s trip, while short, accomplished many diplomatic milestones, from the amiable baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team to the more serious joint news conference given by both presidents. During his three-day trip, President Obama also visited the new American embassy, toured Old Havana, honored Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí, learned to play dominoes with a Cuban comic, spent two hours talking to dissidents, and, in Havana’s Gran Teatro, delivered his keynote speech that was broadcast live on Cuban state television.

In his speech in Havana, President Obama appealed to the same spirit of change that transformed the segregated America to which his father arrived in 1959 into the America that had elected a black man to be president. While he criticized the Cuban government’s crackdown on dissidents and other forms of repression, he still affirmed the Cuban right to sovereignty and the power of the Cuban people to decide their own fate. But perhaps more significantly, President Obama convinced President Castro to hold a joint news conference after their talks, something unheard of for the Cuban leader, during which an American reporter asked President Castro directly about the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.

The reaction to President Obama’s visit and speech were tremendous, both within the island nation and beyond. While the visit did lead to some backlash from the Cuban government, as seen in Fidel’s letter “El hermano Obama” and certain elements of American politics, the majority of the Cuban people seem to have agreed with Obama’s message and are excited about the normalization of relations.

As LAWG has advocated for years, the administration seems set on ensuring that the path to normalization is irreversible. The regulations on travel have been loosened, as have the regulations on financial transactions and trade. Direct mail service has resumed and embassies have been reopened. But the full normalization cannot be reached without the lifting of the embargo, which still requires an act of U.S. Congress.

Although it might seem impossible to get anything passed through Congress in the current political environment, Cuba seems to be one of the few issues that can garner support from both sides of the aisle. While no bill yet exists to lift the embargo completely, there are multiple bills with bipartisan support that have already been introduced that would chip away at the embargo in pieces.

  • The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act (S.491), introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), currently has 24 co-sponsors (3 Republicans).
  • The Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (H.R.3238), introduced by Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN 6th) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL 14th). This bill currently has 12 co-sponsors (11 Republicans and 1 Democrat).
  • The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (S.299), introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), currently has 46 co-sponsors (our goal is to get more than 50 co-sponsors). The language in this Senate bill is identical to the House bill H.R.664.
  • The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (H.R.664), introduced by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC 1st) and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA 2nd). This bipartisan travel bill currently has 122 co-sponsors (15 Republicans and 107 Democrats).

LAWG celebrated the incredible progress we’ve made in U.S.-Cuba relations this year by officially changing our campaign name from “End the Travel Ban on Cuba” to “End the Embargo on Cuba,” which has long been our goal. We remain committed to reinforcing the Obama Administration’s actions, and we will count on the support of dedicated advocates like you as we urge Congress to do its part and end the U.S. embargo on Cuba once and for all.