There was no doubt that history was being made here Sunday afternoon.
Wave after wave of Cubans and American tourists made their way to the south end of Terminal 2 in Jose Marti International Airport to see the landing of Air Force One on the tarmac; bodies pressed 20-deep against the glass wall. A swell of pride grew into a crescendo of hoots and hollers of approval.
If executive orders and grand gestures were all it took to help bring democracy to the 11 million residents of this communist island, one would think President Barack Obama brought with him a solution that many have longed for.
He hasn’t, of course. What the Cuban people desire can be bestowed only by the U.S. Congress: ending the decades-old U.S.-Cuba trade embargo.
They have come to learn, and lament, that this American president — the first to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years — can do only so much. He can’t lift an embargo that stifles not only their lot in life but any chance at some form of democracy.
They don’t care, many of them told us as their voices rose. They just know it must happen — soon.
We agree. The hope was that 15 months ago, when Obama announced a bold move toward thawing more than a half-century of Cold War relations with the government of Cuban revolutionary-turned-dictator Fidel Castro, that Congress would eventually follow suit on ending the embargo.
This Congress doesn’t like to follow this president, however. Worse, it doesn’t look like it will happen in the nine months remaining in Obama’s final term. That means the Castro regime will continue using it to demonize the U.S. and maintain its grip on power.
Critics are right to hammer away at Cuba’s atrocious human rights record and strict limits on media via the Internet, public speech, assembly and dissent. In 2015, more than 8,600 people considered political prisoners were arrested or detained in some way. And hours before Obama’s flight landed Sunday, nearly three dozen members of the female protest group Ladies in White were arrested by Cuban police.
Obama, in his joint news conference with President Raul Castro Monday, confirmed that he still plans to meet with dissidents. He is unlikely to return with any pledges for change from the Castro regime.
But for everyday Cubans struggling to live off of an average $22 a month from the state — if they can find a job with the state — the first step to changing anything is ending the U.S. embargo.
“We all thought after Obama’s announcement months ago that the embargo would be coming down,” Dariel, who makes more in a week driving tourists than he does in a few months as an X-ray technician, said through a translator. “But that didn’t happen, so we are just waiting. Everything else will happen after that.”
Not that ending the embargo will solve every problem — at least right away. Expect the Castro regime to still control the anticipated flow of investment capital from companies like Xerox, Marriott and Starwood Hotels. Expect also that the regime will dictate what businesses can be owned by whom.
We shouldn’t expect major change overnight. But opening things up will give hope to a talented, hardworking and industrious people — particularly a generation of highly educated younger Cubans who grow increasingly frustrated for change.
These are the same young Cubans who hold Obama in such high regard and are pinning their hopes for the future on his efforts to persuade a reluctant Congress.
There are no guarantees that lifting the embargo will bring about the change our leaders seek. But after 50 years, don’t the Cuban people deserve a shot at it?