Obama makes the right moves towards Cuba

With Barack Obama becoming the first US president to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years, the US-Cuban relations are taking a new turn towards normalization after long decades of animosity. The trailblazing visit would gradually usher in a new era of bilateral economic ties. The US businesses see potential in Havana and on the island’s beaches where tourism opportunities abound.
Since their meeting with Cuban president Raul Castro in Panama late in 2004, Obama has been rolling back restrictions on Cuba, punching hole after hole in the US trade embargo. He seeks to end decades of hostilities between the two countries through executive orders that have eased travel conditions.
Obama has limitations though. It is only the US Congress that has the authority to totally lift the trade embargo. Yet, he seems to be confident that a rapprochement symbolized by his visit, has now become irrevocable, no matter who succeeds him. He is right. Issues related with the country’s interest remain untouchable.
“It signals the beginning of a new era, more than anything that’s been done so far,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’s among the leading US advocates of normalization and is part of the delegation in Cuba. “Any Republican administration would be hard-pressed to reverse really any of this. This all feeds on itself. These changes are going to be permanent and expanding.”
While Washington plans to enhance ties gradually with Havana, it believes thawing relations with Cuba will help Washington mend bridges with Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. For Cuba, the end of the embargo means trade with its large northern neighbour can resume.
The rapprochement with Havana is not a blank cheque anyway. The US wants improvements in Cuba’s human rights record and end to the communist police state. Only when the economic embargo is lifted will the bilateral trade flourish.
But defiant Castro hit back at US criticism of its human rights record by saying that Cuba meets more indicators of human rights than many other countries. Hinting at Cuba’s health index, he turned the tables on the US, criticizing the country’s health and education systems as human rights abuses. “We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights.”
The business aspect of the visit was obvious as President Obama was accompanied by a leading US delegation that includes lawmakers from both parties, corporate executives eyeing new commercial ties with Cuba, and prominent Cuban Americans. Among them is Marriott International Inc. Chief Executive Arne Sorenson; Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corp.; Brian Chesky, president and founder of Airbnb Inc.; and Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal Holdings.
In a concrete sign of the business opportunities emerging as a result of the thaw, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. announced a day before Obama’s arrival that it had agreed to convert three hotels in Cuba into Starwood-brand properties. Airbnb announced on Sunday that the Treasury Department had approved its plan to offer accommodations in Cuba for non-US travellers. Marriott also announced on Sunday that Treasury had approved its application to do business in Cuba. On the sidelines of his visit, Obama attended an event for Cuban and US entrepreneurs.
Since countdown for his presidency has started, Obama has been active in foreign policy to leave a legacy that would reverberate long. The rapprochement with Cuba comes within this context.

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