It is interesting to read comments about President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba and the negative reaction from some conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, who believed it was inappropriate for the president of the United States to visit the communist state. After all, they say, the Cuban government is run by a dictator who keeps political prisoners, and the Cuban people are not free.

Indeed, Cuba is run by a dictator who keeps political prisoners. And, yes, the Cuban government has a terrible human rights record. But, beyond the fact that our Cuban policy of no engagement has failed miserably for over 50 years, a quick look at history tells us that Obama's policy of engagement is consistent with that of his predecessors.


Some have compared Obama's visit to Cuba to President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Nixon's trip to China was the first presidential visit since 1949. At the time, China had — and continues to have — many political prisoners. The Chinese people were not free in 1972 and continue to lack basic human rights today. But the result of Nixon's visit was better relationships and communication between America and China. For examples, hundreds of thousands of exchange students travel between our two nations every year. In the end, most independent observers would report that Nixon's trip to China has been a net positive for both nations and for the world.

On October 12, 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland. The 1986 visit was followed by Reagan's visit to Russia in 1988. The Soviet Union had political prisoners then and Russia continues to hold thousands of political prisoners today. Yet, Reagan's visit to the Soviet Union resulted in an agreement that reduced the number of nuclear arms in the world.

America has extensive diplomatic relations and embassies in both Russia and China. Both Russia and China have embassies here in America. These embassies are important links between nations that prevent small issues from exploding into larger issues. If effective communication is the most important variable for keeping peace between nations, having diplomatic relationships is the vehicle for that effective communication.

To maintain diplomatic relations and embassies in Russia and China, despite their deplorable human rights records, but not in Cuba, is ludicrous and indefensible.

President George W. Bush visited China in 2005 and again in 2008. He visited Russia a total of six times (twice in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2008). He met with President Vladimir Putin five times. Putin is not only noted for keeping political prisoners, but he is suspected of having some of them murdered.

President Obama has been to China twice (2009 and 2014) and Russia twice (2009 and 2013). But for whatever reason, while going to China and Russia is viewed as smart foreign policy, going to Cuba, 90 miles off our southern coast, is unacceptable.

It is also interesting to listen to people like Sen. Ted Cruz talk about the inappropriateness of Obama's visit to Cuba where, according to Cruz, political prisoners are tortured. Yet, in speech after speech, Cruz and other Republican candidates have defended the use of torture and the continued detainment of prisoners at places like Guantanamo Bay, ironically located in Cuba. Some politicians seem to believe that torture by other countries is bad, but torture by Americans is somehow acceptable and justified.

The double standard about Obama visiting Cuba when previous presidents visited larger and strategically more repressive nations like China and Russia is one more example of some people's belief that anything accomplished by Obama must be discredited and criticized.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is the program director of the graduate program in human services management at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at