“I am pleased to join in marking two years of progress since the historic decision made by the United States and Cuba to begin normalizing relations after decades of conflict and isolation,” President Obama wrote in a private letter to participants of a recent White House meeting on Cuba. The off-the-record gathering—guests included Cuban officials, prominent Cuban-American community leaders, US business representatives, US politicians, and policy advocates—was held to commemorate the second anniversary of “17-D”—the iconic date of Obama and Raúl Castro’s dramatic announcement, on December 17, 2014, that Washington and Havana would end decades of estrangement and move forward toward normal bilateral ties.
As Obama enters his final days in the White House, the break-out policy of engagement with Cuba ranks as one of his administration’s signature achievements. In just 24 months, the two nations have reopened their embassies, renewed direct commercial air travel, re-established limited trade relations, re-instituted direct mail services, and fostered a formal diplomatic framework for ongoing negotiations on issues of mutual interest as well as on issues of complex differences, such as human rights and compensation for expropriated properties. The president has used his executive authority to poke substantial holes in the long-standing economic embargo, making it possible for major US companies such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts and, most recently, Google, to do business in Havana. Last spring, Obama became the first US president in almost 90 years to travel to Cuba; there he personally advanced the hand of friendship to both the government of Raúl Castro and the Cuban people.
After more than a half-century of cold war in the Caribbean, as Obama noted in his letter, the US-Cuba détente has ended “an outdated approach” of confrontation and opened a new era of peaceful coexistence. To the great benefit of both US and Cuban citizens, Obama’s Cuba policy has transformed the closest of enemies into regional neighbors, whose common interests and significant disagreements can now be addressed through normal dialogue rather than perpetual hostility. “Through diplomacy,” Obama proudly noted in his valedictory message to the nation released this week, the United States has “opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba.” Indeed, a key foreign-policy legacy the Obama administration leaves will be a model for the creative use of diplomatic engagement—both open and back channel—to resolve seemingly intractable and entrenched conflicts in the global arena.
That is, if it can survive Donald Trump.
* * *
Since November 8, the president-elect “has proved more than once,” as David Remnick recently observed in The New Yorker, “that it is possible to deepen global anxiety armed with nothing more than a galling level of presumption and a Twitter account.” Indeed, Trump’s unexpected election has cast a dark shadow over the future of a number of dramatic international advances—particularly the promising future of US relations with Cuba.
As a businessman, Trump favored normal economic ties with Cuba. According to news reports during the campaign, in the 1990s he secretly dispatched emissaries to scout hotel and casino opportunities in Havana; as recently as last spring, he was still making quiet inquiries.