President Obama in Cuba: A watershed moment in international relations
The world has come a long, long way since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 which had taken this planet almost on the verge of the Third World War. Fifty-four years since that episode, an American president reached Cuba on Sunday in a historic visit and ended the Cold War standoff.
Barack Obama, who is in his last year in the White House, made the moment memorable by tweeting "Que bola Cuba"---- a local slang meaning "What's up?"
Obama first US president to visit Cuba since 1928
The lame-duck American president, who is accompanied by First Lady Michelle and two daughters Sasha and Malia, became the first US leader to visit the island-state since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He also became the first sitting president of the world's only superpower to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro toppled the Washington-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Obama made every effort to show how historic the visit was as he said while it had taken Coolidge three days to reach Cuba (he had gone in a battleship), he covered the distance in just three hours. Indeed Mr President! You have done the best you could to leave a long-lasting legacy.
Obama will have a legacy
But apart from the fact that this visit will make Obama's presidency immortal of sort in the books of history, it also signifies a reward of sort to the efforts made by Obama and Raul Castro, his Cuban counterparty, in restoring normalcy in the relation between the two neighbouring countries.
It is true that differences still persist but it can't also be denied that the political and economic equations between the two states have undergone rapid changes in 15 months since they decided to write a new history.
The normalisation of relations is not a big deal in international politics but when it comes to US and Cuba, it is not a small thing. There was a time when even thinking about a US president visiting Cuba was unthinkable, even at the people's level. Washington had cut off diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 after Castro's revolution and imposed blockade on that country for several decades, causing it severe difficulties.
Uncommon scenes in Cuba ahead of Obama's visit
The build-up to Obama's visit made that history look unrealistic! While the streets in Old Havana were cleaned up, buildings were freshly painted. American and Cuban flags were also seen flying side by side in many parts of the capital---setting up a mood which surpised many who have seen years of acrimony. There were also some protests ahead of the US President's arrival but they never took a violent shape. The demonstrators of the Ladies in White group were briefly detained and released too.
It's not just about hard talks but informal ways to get closer as well
Obama's visit is not just about political parleying but also includes informal ways to cement the bridge which has been built after ages. On Tuesday, Obama will join Castro and a crowd of baseball fans to watch a match between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bays Rays of the Major League Baseball. The US president also has plans to speak at the Grand Theater of Havana to lay out his ideas for a better life in Cuba. Even the Rolling Stones, considered once a symbol of cultural imperialism by communist leaders, will play a free concert in Havana on Friday.
Raul, who had taken over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, began and economic and social reforms which made a lasting impact depsite being slow. Havana, however, has not softened its stand on implementing changes in its political systen dominated by a single party.
From hard stand to soft strategy: US has changed its policy on Cuba
Obama's diplomatic victory lies in the fact that unlike Washington's hard stand in the past, his administration has adopted a soft strategy to settle the Cuban question. Far from the Americans' initiatives of economic strangulation, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the CIA's assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Obama decided to reach out to the Cubans to help the country open its economy which will help it economically and even politically. Through this, Obama is also making the normalisation an irreversible process which even a hardline successor (will it be Donald Trump?) cannnot affect.
Perhaps the best summation of the US-Cuba rapproachement was given by John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. He said: "It's a soft war using visitors as the soldiers, commercial airlines as the air force, and cruise ships as the navy."