White House sources have told reporters that Barack Obama will do something no president has done since 1928; the 44th president will travel to Cuba “in the next few weeks”. Many news outlets are already labelling the proposed trip “historic”: it has been almost ninety years since a President of the United States made the journey to the small Communist outpost ninety miles from the coast of the most powerful democracy in the world.
The news is further evidence that the president is keen to normalise relations with the Castro regime before he leaves office next January, and follows hot on the heels of the conclusion of a deal regularising commercial air traffic between the two countries. Progress on Cuba has been slow, and quite likely slower than the president would like; the Republican-controlled Congress is adamantly opposed to lifting the trade embargo (which has lasted over fifty years) whilst Cuba remains a Communist dictatorship.
Like any major policy announcement in an election year, the news will have an influential impact on the race to replace Obama in the Oval Office. This is especially true this time round, as two of the candidates for the Republican nomination – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are Cuban-Americans. Both men attended a town hall event in South Carolina ahead of this weekend’s state primary. They attacked each other constantly, but they agreed on one thing: Barack Obama should not go to Cuba.
“They are a repressive regime. There’s no elections in Cuba. There is no choice in Cuba,” Rubio told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, before declaring that as president he would not visit the island until it truly resembled “a free Cuba”.
Senator Cruz was equally strident, declaring he would not visit Cuba “as long as Castro is in power.” He said of the announcement: “I was saddened to hear that [but] I wasn’t surprised. This was foreshadowed for a long time.”
On the Democratic side, both candidates have a history of supporting the administration’s position on Cuba and Hillary Clinton was believed to be a strong advocate of normalising relations during her four-year stint as Secretary of State.
The circumstances that surrounded the last presidential trip to Cuba were vastly different. In 1928, Calvin Coolidge arrived in Havana aboard the USS Texas to give the keynote speech at a Pan-American conference; he did so at a time when federal law gave the United States the power to intervene in the domestic affairs of the small island nation. Coolidge remains the only sitting president to make an official visit to Cuba. None of his fourteen successors have returned. This makes Obama’s trip a landmark event and potential historical watershed.