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Why Obama's Historic #CubaVisit Is Super Controversial

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 22/03/2016 Kicker

Cuba is an island country, just 90 miles from the US.

Since 1960, the US has banned all travel and trade with Cuba. (That policy is known as the Cuba embargo.) In December 2014, the White House revealed they'd secretly been working on making relations with Cuba normal again. (If you want more backstory, it's right here.)
Right now, President Obama is in Cuba for a few days.

So what? Who cares? Why does it matter?

It's the first time a US president has gone there in 88 years.

The last president to go to Cuba was Calvin Coolidge.
calvin coolidge cuba © Provided by The Huffington Post calvin coolidge cuba

Looks like someone could use a mojito. (Wikimedia Commons)

Obama is there meeting with President Raul Castro.

It's a huge step forward in normalizing relations with Cuba

The Pope helped warm things up between Cuba and the US. Since then we've been taking baby steps towards having a normal relationship. Like letting Americans go there on a trip, and re-opening the US embassy.
secretary of state john kerry us flag us embassy cuba © Provided by The Huffington Post secretary of state john kerry us flag us embassy cuba

Secretary of State John Kerry watches as the US flag goes up at the reopened US embassy in Cuba. (Giphy)

There's no bigger way to send the message that having a decent relationship is important than for the president to visit.
Yes, even bigger than Beyonce and Jay-Z.é-in-cuba-looks-this

Seriously, this Obama trip is hugely controversial. It's probably strangely fitting that when the Obamas arrived, the skies were cloudy and rainy. The sun was not shining.

Cuban people are overall pretty psyched to see Obama.

But there are problems.

Cuba is known for rampant and horrible human rights abuses

Every Sunday, after church, a group called Ladies in White marches to demand better human rights in Cuba. And every week, some of those demonstrators get arrested. They thought maybe Cuba cops would just leave them alone the day President Obama was arriving. (After all, some people criticized him for going to Cuba because they have a long list of human rights abuses.) Nope.
They marched, and about 50 members got arrested.

Many of the ladies are the wives of jailed dissidents, people who outspokenly criticize the government.
Cuba is communist, not democratic. They don't have a law like our First Amendment. They have no right to speak freely, especially when it comes to the government.
What's the Cuban government doing to violate their citizens' human rights? Here's a small snapshot of just part of what they've done recently, from Freedom House:
"In 2014, the Cuban government increased its systematic use of short-term "preventive" detentions--along with harassment, beatings, and "acts of repudiation"--to intimidate the political opposition, isolate dissidents from the rest of the population, and maintain political control of all public spaces. A record number of politically motivated detentions were recorded in 2014, and crackdowns on activists continued."

Human Rights Watch described other brutal ways the Cuban government cracks down on their own people:
"... [T]he Cuban government continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights. Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment, and threats of long-term imprisonment. Short-term arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely."

It's pretty horrible.

Many people, including Senator Ted Cruz--a Republican who is running for president, and whose father fled Cuba--argues that Obama going to Cuba to "hang out" with President Raul Castro sends a terrible message to dissidents in Cuban prisons and dungeons.

Obama says he hopes that his being part of a US delegation to Cuba will "prompt more change."

It spotlights US immigration policy

We've long had an influx of Cuban immigrants to the United States. But since the US-Cuba relationship started warming up in late 2014, there's been a major immigration wave. Immigration from Cuba was 78% higher in 2015 over 2014. Wow. That's a big jump.
Why are so many Cubans suddenly streaming into the US? For years, the US has given all Cuban immigrants political asylum, a special status that makes it easier to get a green card, AKA become a permanent legal resident. If relations between the two countries become more normal, though, Cubans fear that special immigration status will end. So they're coming in droves before that policy can change.
There are about 1.2 million Cuban immigrants living in the US. Cuba's total population is just over 11 million. That means close to 10% of the entire population has sought a better life in the US. (And that doesn't count the Cubans who have emigrated to other countries.)

This is a stark reminder that Cubans still suffer difficult lives in their country. Not only do they lack many basic rights, but their economy is really weak (partly because of the US trade embargo, which still hasn't been lifted).

So many Cubans who leave for the US come for economic, not purely political, reasons.

It's also a stark reminder that US immigration policy really needs to be reformed. People in other Latin American countries say it's totally unfair that Cuban immigrants get a path to legal status easier than immigrants from other countries, where people are suffering equally harsh conditions, if not worse.

Don't forget Guantanamo

At the other end of Cuba from the capital, Havana, is Guantanamo Bay, where the US operates a notorious detention camp.

Obama just announced a new plan to close the camp once and for all. Most Democrats really want him to. So does the United Nations.
It's hard to think about the president of the United States going to Cuba without being reminded of Guantanamo Bay. Where prisoners are held on suspicion of terrorist activity.
Unlike regular US prisons, though, these prisoners can be held indefinitely, and they're not subject to US laws like due process or the right not to undergo cruel and unusual punishment. (Many detainees have been subjected to practices that sure sound a lot like abuse and torture.)
Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, but keep the US military base itself open. But Cuba wants it back in their control. It's a weird arrangement: Cuba owns the land, but the US leases it, with a term of ... forever. Yes, really. Both sides have to sign any agreement for that lease to end.
The two sides aren't going to agree on Guantanamo for the foreseeable future, no matter who the US president is, and no matter whether the US keeps its prison open there or not.
Still, it's going to be pretty tough for Obama to push Castro on human rights, because Guantanamo.
This article was written by Holly Epstein Ojalvo and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.

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