White House and Cuba Maneuver Over Obama’s Visit
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS MARCH 6, 2016
WASHINGTON — When Major League Baseball completed a deal with the Cuban
government last week to hold an exhibition game in Havana during
President Obama’s planned visit this month, White House officials
quietly rejoiced that a pivotal piece of their plan had fallen into
place after weeks of intensive negotiations.
It was just one aspect of an elaborate behind-the-scenes effort by
American and Cuban officials to ensure that Mr. Obama’s historic visit
to Cuba yields the powerful symbolism and concrete policy progress they
Both sides have a lot at stake. A successful trip could vindicate the
decision by Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba to pursue an
official thaw, broadcasting to both of their publics the possibilities
of a new relationship and building political support in the United
States for ending a decades-old trade embargo.
But a misstep or public dispute has the potential to set back that goal
by highlighting the deep differences that remain between the United
States and Cuba. There is also the risk of dissonance in trying to open
a new chapter in relations when so many of the old plotlines, including
differences over human rights violations by Mr. Castro’s government, are
still playing out.
“This trip can either be the vindication or the refutation of Obama’s
approach in Cuba,” said Christopher Sabatini, a professor of
international affairs at Columbia University and the director of the
Brooklyn-based research organization Global Americans.
“If the Cubans lecture him on human rights or crack down on dissidents
while he is there, it’s going to be quite ugly,” Professor Sabatini
said. “It would make the president look like a dupe, and it would be a
huge indictment of his foreign policy.”
Officials on both sides are holding exhaustive talks to avoid such a
public rift and instead showcase points of agreement and cooperation.
They are haggling over everything from the details of the baseball game
to which regulatory changes and business deals can be announced during
A presidential baseball outing is now in, but a visit to the United
States naval base at Guantánamo Bay is out. A speech by Mr. Obama to the
Cuban people and a meeting with their president are planned, and a visit
with political dissidents is a nonnegotiable demand, the White House
told the Cubans. An appearance with Fidel Castro, the president’s older
brother and the father of the Communist revolution, is to be avoided at
Adding to the complexity and urgency of the task, there is no modern
template for a sitting American president to visit Cuba, because it was
nearly 90 years ago — when Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship —
that the last one did.
“This is new for everybody,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy
national security adviser, who has lured at least one former lieutenant
temporarily back to the National Security Council to help. “There may be
irritants, there may be potholes, but people in both countries want this
Arranging a meeting with antigovernment activists has already emerged as
a point of contention. Amid resistance from the Cubans, Secretary of
State John Kerry was forced to scrap tentative plans to travel to Havana
on Friday to meet with a group of dissidents. White House officials made
it clear to their Cuban counterparts early on that such a meeting was
mandatory for the president, but they have disagreed over whom Mr. Obama
“The Cubans are always resistant, but we laid down at the beginning of
discussions he will meet with dissidents,” Mr. Rhodes said. He is
negotiating over the trip with the same group of Cuban officials he
secretly met with for months in Canada to strike the initial 2014 deal
to begin normalizing relations.
The Cuban government has made no secret of its displeasure about Mr.
Obama’s plans to see the dissidents. Just after the White House
announced the trip last month, Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban Foreign
Ministry official, said her country and the United States held
“different ideas” about human rights. She said she hoped Mr. Obama would
have a chance to speak with “real Cuban civil society,” apparently
alluding to her government’s opinion that the dissidents American
officials have sought to support are not legitimate.
There is less disagreement on travel and commerce between the United
States and Cuba, and officials are discussing changes and business deals
that the two sides could announce during the trip to tighten their ties.
The White House is also considering revising regulations to allow
American dollars to be used in transactions with Cuba and to allow
individual Americans to travel there for “people-to-people” visits
currently permitted only as part of group tours, Mr. Rhodes said.
Talks on the trip have been unfolding for months, after the two
presidents first discussed it during a September meeting in New York at
the United Nations General Assembly, their second meeting after
announcing the policy shift in December 2014. Mr. Obama told Mr. Castro
that he would like to visit Cuba before the end of his term, but that he
would be willing to make the trip only if he could justify it by
pointing to concrete progress in the normalization process. He
instructed senior White House aides to begin working toward that goal.
Mr. Rhodes enlisted Bernadette Meehan, a former National Security
Council spokeswoman and Foreign Service officer, who left the White
House in June, to return to the West Wing to help plan the trip,
reflecting the complexity of the task and the importance Mr. Obama
places on bringing it off smoothly.
For the Americans planning the trip, there have been some pleasant
surprises — their government-issued BlackBerries work in Havana! — and
some obstacles. The dearth of hotel rooms in Havana has made it
extremely difficult to find enough beds for all the aides, security
personnel, reporters, businesspeople and others who are clamoring to be
part of the visit.
A huge amount of preparatory work is being done by a lean United States
Embassy staff in Havana, kept small by congressional restrictions
imposed by opponents of Mr. Obama’s policy shift.
“Every presidential trip has extraordinary detail at every level, from
security to politics to media coverage, but Cuba’s not every trip,” said
Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which recounts
decades of clandestine talks between the American and Cuban governments.
“This is a singularly historic game-changer that will be remembered like
Nixon’s trip to China, and both sides have a lot at stake.”