President Obama made history last week as the first US President in 88 years to visit Cuba. As he spends the last months of his presidency struggling to make domestic headway, he went to bring to a close one of the great conflicts of world history: the Cold War. This was a significant achievement, although many in America have condemned the reconciliation with Cuba as too forgiving. Nevertheless, it seems that, while new conflicts are forming around the world, the last serious capitalist vs. communist struggle has come to an end. In fact, as Cuban President Raúl Castro brings in reforms venturing towards capitalism, communism, for the time being, is being swept out of significance..
However, perhaps the most interesting aspects of the presidential visit were the more hostile moments. Both presidents made it very clear that they have some fundamental differences. This was best symbolized when Castro took Obama’s arm and raised it in the air, only for his hand to remain limp in one of the most awkward handshakes of all time. President Obama went on to criticize Cuba’s human rights record and its retaining of political prisoners, leading Cubans to see their leader questioned on such issues on television for the first time. Castro hit back that the United States is hypocritical on human rights, considering its failure to bring universal healthcare, university education, and equal pay for women to the American people. He then demanded that the US return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba.
These differences of opinion will continue to shape both countries into the future, but this is unlikely to impede Cuba’s charge towards capitalism. Research shows that the private sector is starting to expand in the wake of legislation allowing small private businesses. Access to the Internet is spreading fast and the US loosening of restrictions on trade will surely only increase the pace towards a more free market.
One thing that remains unclear is where democracy will come into this. Many are surprised that Raúl Castro is bringing in these reforms, being the brother of Fidel Castro who led the Cuban Revolution to victory back in 1959, two years before Obama was born. Fidel remains alive and influential, and recently condemned the ‘honey-coated’ visit, saying that Cuba doesn’t need any presents from the ‘empire’, personally attacking Obama. This reveals that there is considerable tension in the top ranks of Cuba’s leadership. Next month’s Communist Party Congress might offer insights into possible political reform. For now, though, the Castros remain divided but firmly in control.
However, what was significant about this visit was that, while the two Presidents admitted strong disagreements, they did so with openness and tolerance. The Cuban government, while insisting that it will retain some of its socialist principles, has made it clear that it wishes to do so with peace, cooperation and free trade rather than with hostility. Admittedly, this new attitude is specifically aimed at foreign policy. Aside from tentative moves towards changing the economy, it is yet to be seen how the Cuban government will change its much-criticized treatment of its own people. On the other hand, President Obama admitted ‘shortcomings in the United States around basic needs for people, and poverty and inequality and race relations’, and welcomed ‘constructive dialogue’ on these issues. In fact, it probably pained him to see the US criticized for its gun laws, health care, and Guantánamo Bay: three issues that he has fought to change throughout his presidency, but has come across intense opposition in all cases.
All of this exemplifies that two nations can live in peace and work together despite historical conflicts and deep cultural differences. Hopefully in the future more nations can come together in a similar way, emphasizing similarities and potential for mutual benefit over cultural differences and hostility. As Obama said in his speech to the Cuban people, ‘when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect, we can both learn and make the lives of our people better’.
- Xan Northcott