Indiana University experts comment on President Obama's visit to Cuba

  • March 21, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Barack Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. Today, he opened bilateral talks with Cuban leader Raul Castro. On Tuesday, he and Castro will attend a game between the Cuban national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. Obama also will give a speech at the Grand Theater of Havana and meet with Cuban dissidents.

Indiana University experts share the following perspectives:

Beginning of a new era of engagement between Cuba and the United States

Longtime congressman Lee Hamilton, a Distinguished Scholar in the IU School of Global and International Studies and a professor of practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Obama's visit "represents a new approach to dealing with Cuba."

"We are 90 miles from Cuba, but this move has been half a century in the making," Hamilton said. "What is happening here is we are beginning an evolution of our relationship, a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba. We want to see an opening up of travel and commerce. Our hope is that the president will speak out for greater freedom, both political and economic freedom in Cuba, and begin to press for change in that country. But we have to be very careful how we do that. In the past, we have conveyed a message of regime change or threatening the sovereignty of Cuba, and we must move away from that so that the Cuban people and the Cuban government do not feel threatened.
"I’m very pleased that the American public seems to lopsidedly support the new initiatives toward Cuba. And we in the United States have to have confidence that over time as we engage more with the Cuban people politically, diplomatically, economically, that Cuba will move in the right direction. We have to chip away at the distress that has built up over the decades," said Hamilton, who served for 16 years as director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University (now the Center on Representative Government), which he founded in 1999.

Hamilton can be reached at

Channels of communications between the two countries multiplying

Anke Birkenmaier, director of the Center for Caribbean and Latin American Studies in the IU School of Global and International Studies, noted the visit's tremendous historical importance to relations between Cuba and the United States.

"It signals the will on the part of the current U.S. government to leave behind years of Cold War confrontation and begin a new period of friendly relations, based first of all on renewed economic contacts," Birkenmaier said. "I am not sure how much of a concrete effect this visit will have on the still-existing U.S. trade embargo on the one hand, and on the other, on Cuba’s poor record in human rights or the increase Cubans access to the Internet. But what counts a lot is that the channels of communication between the two countries are multiplying.

"By increasing contact with small independent business owners as well as state enterprises, farmers, health professionals, religious groups, environmental agencies, musicians, performers, athletes and writers, the two cultures will grow closer again, and hopefully things might change for the better on both sides," she added. "I am less worried about Cuba falling back into economic dependency on the United States.

"Too much has happened since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. I’m rather worried about rising social and racial inequality in the Cuba of now, which has to do with the uneven access of Cubans on the island to foreign currencies and therefore high-quality food and other consumer goods, either thanks to remittances from relatives abroad, or because they work in tourism-related enterprises. A huge part of Cuba’s population is still excluded from those benefits, and I hope that President Obama’s visit will push for an opening allowing a larger part of the population to work independently and do direct business with outside handlers."

Reporters can reach Birkenmaier at 812-855-0639 or

A Cuban-American perspective

Since the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations began in late 2014, Gerardo Gonzalez, dean emeritus of the IU School of Education, has worked toward promoting understanding and collaboration between academic institutions in both countries. Gonzalez, whose family fled Cuba in 1962, returned to the island nation in the fall as part of a high-level delegation of educational leaders

"President Obama's historic visit to Cuba is truly a new beginning in U.S.-Cuba relations," Gonzalez said. "No one knows where it will lead, but it's hard to imagine a return to the frozen relations of the last half century. As a Cuban-American refugee who has lived with a foot in both cultures, I can only hope that through increased contact, better understanding and lots of education, the people of both nations will grow and prosper in a mutually beneficial and peaceful if yet uncertain new future."

Gonzalez has spoken frequently to national and international groups and written on the Cuban-American experience and Hispanic education concerns. In 2012, Hispanic Business named him one of the 50 most influential Hispanics in the United States. He can be reached at

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