President Obama promised in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News that he “very much” hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if he can meet with pro-democracy dissidents there.
“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raul] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”
Speaking in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Obama strongly hinted that he would make a decision “over the next several months.”
The president hopes that “sometime next year” he and his top aides will see enough progress in Cuba that they can say that “now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that’s been made, but also maybe [go] there to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.”
White House aides privately describe an Obama visit — under the right circumstances — as the logical culmination of the new policy direction that he announced almost exactly one year ago.
On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Raul Castro stunned the world by disclosing that they had held secret negotiations and were prepared to usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, starting with the resumption of full diplomatic ties. Embassies reopened in Havana and Washington, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the two sides took steps to increase travel and business opportunities.
Obama has undertaken many changes using his executive powers, and he indicated in the interview that he would continue looking at ways to do so in 2016. But Obama needs Congress to roll back the centerpiece of America’s Cold War-era pressure on Cuba and lift the U.S. trade embargo.
Asked whether that’s impossible while Fidel Castro is alive, Obama replied: “I’m going to test that proposition — that may be true.”
President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Oliver Knox, Chief Washington Correspondent, Yahoo! News, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Dec. 10, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
The president argued that bipartisan support for lifting the embargo has grown over the years and that “the politics may change pretty rapidly,” to the point that “it’s conceivable that Congress chooses to take some action next year.”
Obama said he would be “selective and cautious” about using his executive powers to enforce the embargo in a way that might allow more economic exchanges.
“There are going to be certain sectors of the economy where we think, if there’s some modification of the application of the embargo, the Cuban people will benefit directly. There are going to be some areas where it could prop up, you know, certain cronies of the regime, but not necessarily have widespread impact,” he said.
Obama, who has always said that political change would not come “overnight” to Cuba, predicted that Havana would be “cautious” about opening up but that political reform would likely follow economic exchange as well as increased exposure to American culture and Western technology.
“Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather that over time you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,” he said.
“The more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information, unfettered by censorship, the more you’re laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are going to be coming over time,” he added.
Obama said the United States would “keep on pushing and prodding” Cuba on democratic reform and human rights, and he pressed Castro to let more foreign investors hire Cubans directly, rather than going through the government. Experts say that the government uses outside investments – like luxury resorts – as a de facto patronage system, giving eagerly sought jobs to loyalists.
“A real game changer would be a situation in which you have a direct employer-employee relationship. Because then the higher standards of a U.S. company or a foreign company would make a big difference,” he said.
“If they want the full benefits of rejoining the world economy, then they’re going to have to accelerate reforms that are needed,” Obama said.
For most of his presidency, Obama was focused on a different aspect of Cuba policy: the fate of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which he promised to shut down within a year after taking office. The progress there has been slow and plodding in comparison with the lightning fast diplomacy that led to normalization of relations with Cuba. Seven years into his administration, he’s still dealing with political fallout from the closure effort.
Obama said that reports of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, freed in 2012, joining al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were not cause to revisit his push to close the notorious prison for suspected terrorists.
“I am absolutely persuaded, as are my top intelligence and military advisers, that Guantanamo is used as a recruitment tool for organizations like ISIS,” he said. “And if we want to fight ’em, then we can’t give ’em these kinds of excuses.”
Obama also said that it was to be expected that “a handful” of the hundreds of Guantanamo Bay prisoners released over the past 14 years would join, or rejoin, terrorist groups.
“The judgment that we’re continually making is, are there individuals who are significantly more dangerous than the people who are already out there who are fighting? What do they add? Do they have special skills? Do they have special knowledge that ends up making significant threat to the United States?” he said. “And so the bottom line is that the strategic gains we make by closing Guantanamo will outweigh, you know, those low-level individuals who, you know, have been released so far.”
But Obama demurred when asked whether, if he achieves the long-shot goal of closing the detention center, he will take steps to turn the base back over to Cuba.
“We’re far from having a conversation about that with the Cuban government,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’d love to have Guantanamo back. And I suspect that will be a long, diplomatic discussion that will outlast my administration.”
For his part, Obama has already had lengthy diplomatic conversations with his Cuban counterpart. Asked whether Raul Castro is a revolutionary, a caretaker, or a transformational leader, Obama sketched a biographical portrait of a complex and potentially conflicted man who has “gone through a bunch of stages” in his life.
“You’re talking about somebody in their 80s who has been in power alongside his brother since I was born,” Obama said. “I don’t think the man he was at 35 is the same person that he is at 85,” Obama said, describing Raul Castro as “somebody who is very much committed to the existing regime, who is suspicious of full democracy.”
Still, Obama said, “I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue.”
But Raul Castro is following the path blazed by China or Vietnam, of embracing limited market reforms “without letting go of the political reins,” Obama said.
“I think he’s going be cautious in how quickly he opens things up,” but he “recognizes the need for change” driven by an awareness of the weaknesses in his country’s economic and political system,” Obama said.
And while the White House plainly sees the U.S.-Cuba opening as a major legacy item for Obama, Obama himself suggested that it was even more important to Castro to “usher in those changes before he and his brother are gone.”
Castro “views himself as having the stature to move Cuban society in ways that a successor might not,” Obama said. “Obviously, nobody’s got better street cred when it comes to, you know, Cuban revolutionary zeal, than one of the original revolutionaries.”