President Barack Obama's recent trip to Cuba did more than advance U.S.-Cuban relations. In a world torn by violent confrontations in which air strikes and armed troops seem to be the first response to perceived challenges by nations and peoples, Obama's trip demonstrated that diplomacy works. It showed that one nation's leader can use tough language but not bellicose threats to challenge another. It showed that two nations with a long history of animosity can choose to go forward together.
Historic events don't always feel historic as they play out in front of you. But Obama's trip looked and felt historic, not the least because his two major addresses were broadcast live throughout Cuba.
Obama took full advantage of his rhetorical skills, taking his arguments unmediated to the Cuban people. He convincingly pleaded the case for open democracy and laid that challenge before Cuba.
He was effective because he did not shy away from the United States' historic failures -- economic inequality, racial discrimination and "wars abroad" -- and he was generous in praising Cuba's genuine achievements -- like universal health care, universal education and gender equality.
But he also challenged the Cuban government and people, pressing them on a lack of free expression and assembly, on arbitrary detentions and restrictions on religious practice.
"Now, there's no secret that our governments disagree on many of these issues," Obama said. "I've had frank conversations with President [Raúl] Castro. ... But here's what the Cuban people need to understand: I welcome this open debate and dialogue. It's good. It's healthy. I'm not afraid of it."
Castro deserves praise for allowing such openness. He showed too that, while not as polished as Obama, he did not fear the openness. In a sign of changing times, he took and answered reporters' questions.
It was unfair to focus solely on the issue of free expression, Castro said. Human rights include other things too. "Here in Cuba, all children are born in a hospital, no matter what mountain they live on. In Cuba, men and women who do the same job earn the same."
All countries have failings on human rights but all countries also excel in other areas, Castro said. "We're going to work together so we can all achieve all of the human rights."
Importantly, Obama was respectful of Cuba, and spoke in terms of a partnership, not as an overlord. "I'm also confident that Cuba can continue to play an important role in the hemisphere and around the globe -- and my hope is, is that you can do so as a partner with the United States."
Obama said, in Spanish, "El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo cubano." ("The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.") The two leaders are walking a road that will no doubt be rough at times, but a road moving forward.
Besides easing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, the visit also served as a model for other global conflicts, showing that disagreements between nations can be resolved without resorting to violence. Critics will rightly note that human rights violations have not ended with the agreement and presidential visit, but we need only look to the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resultant turmoil in the Middle East to view the consequences of the alternative.
By showing a way forward in, until now, intractable international relations, the trip brought hope in an otherwise troubled world.
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