Listening to Obama in Cuba

Obama’s recent visit to Cuba - particularly Tuesday's presidential address in Havana - has fueled a tentative hope for a new kind of U.S.-Cuba relations.

March 28, 2016


President Obama and President of Cuba Raúl Castro at their joint press conference in Havana, Cuba, March 21, 2016. (Chuck Kennedy/ Official White House Photo)

This piece is first in a three-part series on President Obama's historic trip to Latin America. 

I arrived in Cuba fifteen days before Barack Obama. Already his name was on everyone’s lips, and in Havana—or parts of it—the preparations were obvious.  Roads were being re-asphalted, buildings repainted, windows replaced. Cubans told me about billboard changes, as some of the more combative, anti-imperialist ones gave way to softer ones: Haz bien y no mires a quien (roughly, “Do the right thing no matter who the other person is”) or Salud para todos (“Good health for all”), with a Cuban flag in the shape of a heart. Outside the Capitol building, an almost perfect replica of the American one, new sidewalks were poured and a flower garden planted for the first time in perhaps decades. Next door, renovations accelerated on the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, where the American president would address the Cuban people.

Cubans, of course, noticed the frenzied preparations and wondered: Will the repairs be completed in time? Where was the money for the work coming from, and why had it not been used earlier to repair things that had so long and so obviously needed repair? Maybe, some joked, Obama would visit once a month and change his itinerary each time; that way different parts of the city might be benefit from restoration and renovation. 

All the purposeful activity and animated speculation notwithstanding, there was an air of unreality to it all. No one seemed to know what to expect, even if many seemed hopeful about potential changes on the horizon—an end to the U.S. embargo among them.  On the eve of Obama’s arrival, the national nightly news in Cuba broadcast a short biographical portrait of Obama. Overwhelmingly positive, it stressed his humble origins and, in a way that seemed to jettison the invective and vitriol of old, the report cast Obama’s story as a very American one.

In the morning, Palm Sunday, mass at the Cathedral of Havana was packed. People crowded every pew, and many others stood on the side aisles and at the back of the church.  A priest read the biblical tale of Jesus’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. During the universal prayer, the reader asked congregants to pray for the reconciliation of all Cubans. Then he prayed that in the imminent meetings between Presidents Obama and Castro, both men be guided by the Holy Spirit, for the good of both the Cuban and American people.  He raised his arms to call for the response, and it was the most enthusiastic of any given that morning. Minutes later, the traditional sign of peace among the congregants was long, animated, even joyful.

Outside the church, as morning became afternoon and the hour of Obama’s arrival drew near, the mood seemed to grow ominous. State security officers in civilian dress were everywhere, their eyes very obviously raking over the crowds for signs of something potentially less obvious. Then, for the first time in over two weeks, clouds descended on Havana and poured their rain.  

The rain served Obama well. He climbed down the stairs of Air Force One, opened his umbrella and immediately covered First-Lady Michelle, who stood next to him.  A simple, thoughtful gesture. A friend, who watched the arrival on TV at a bar in Centro Habana, told me that those watching the U.S. president’s arrival loved that moment. Another man at the same bar broke out in applause at Obama’s appearance on Cuban soil. People stared at him uncomfortably and then joined in.  Across the city, along Obama’s expected routes, Cubans gathered, hoping to get a glimpse of him, his family, or even just his cars, which Cubans revelled in calling “la bestia, literally “the beast.”  Along Linea, in Vedado, an elderly, white woman relished the chance, in front of a uniformed Cuban policeman, to see the man she called “mi presidente.” As Obama walked through Centro Habana—poorer, blacker, and more dilapidated than the parts of Old Havana he was guided through by historian of the city, Eusebio Leal—people in the neighborhood cheered with palpable emotion and respect. One can hear the emotion clearly in the video of his arrival at a paladar (privately-owned restaurant) in Centro Habana, shot by a woman in the neighborhood, who one can hear crying and saying in English, “oh my God.” In that moment, Obama seemed to become, as my colleague Ana Dopico has written, America’s first Afro-Cuban president.

Almost everyone I talked to while in Cuba—in Havana or in the countryside, including farmers, taxi drivers, professors, business people, and retirees—loved talking about Obama. And they used many adjectives to do so: intelligent, humble, cultured, charismatic, eloquent, young, handsome. To be sure, Cubans have heard much about Obama’s drone wars and deportations. But in that moment those things mattered less to them than what Obama’s trip seemed to herald: the hope that with renewed engagement will come opportunity. In a place where the average monthly salary is about $22USD, where the ration book gets a family meager allotments such as five eggs per month, and where an hour of slow internet access costs a tenth of the average monthly salary, that hope and desire is urgent, visceral, and palpable.  And Obama’s visit feeds it like nothing else in recent (and not so recent) memory. The fact that the state has argued for decades that the main impediment to economic progress has been the U.S. embargo, and that Obama seeks to end it, itself feeds that sense of new possibility, that “fierce urgency of now,” to quote Obama quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

The highlight of Obama’s visit was, without a doubt, his speech on Tuesday, broadcast live on Cuban television in its entirety. Much has already been said about that speech. But three things in the speech struck me—a mixed-race Cuban-American historian of Cuba who works on race—as particularly interesting.

History and Revolution

Implicit in Obama’s speech was a vision of history and revolution that no U.S. president has ever elaborated.  First, he spoke of pre-revolutionary Cuba in terms not entirely unlike those used by the Cuban Revolution itself—of a republic that the U.S. treated “as something to exploit, ignor[ing] poverty, and enabl[ing] corruption.” Before 1959, in other words, Cuba was a country that needed a revolution.

Of the revolution the Cubans made, Obama spoke in positive, respectful terms, treating the revolution, at least in its origins, as a popular, just, principled movement for national sovereignty.  He referred to “the ideals that are the starting point for every revolution— America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world.” The comparison cast the Cuban Revolution as a war of liberation. From whom? The United States itself. Remarkably, an American president equated the Cuban Revolution of 1959 with the American Revolution of 1776! Ponder that.

Obama even praised more recent revolutionary history. He celebrated a Cuban education system that “values every boy and every girl;” he spoke of the “service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering.”  What’s more, by stating clearly his opposition to the U.S. embargo, and by explicitly admitting that the embargo has harmed the Cuban people, Obama conceded the spirit of what the Cuban state has long alleged: the U.S. has played a part in the hardships suffered by the Cuban people. Thus a sitting American president openly condemned the U.S.’s historical role in Cuba and its policy in the present.

And that might have been when Cuban government officials grew nervous—or rather, more nervous.  For acknowledging all that as historical truth—just as admitting the fairness of Raul’s criticisms of a host of American failings, from the death penalty to the outsized role of money in politics to racial injustice—won him the respect of many who listened at home. It also allowed his own criticisms of the Cuban state to be expressed subtly, absent the ranting that has so long characterized Cuban-U.S. public debate.  Cubans listened raptly at home as he spoke of free enterprise, not just for the Cuban state but for the Cuban people themselves. They heard him speak of human rights as something other than an either/or proposition: universal access to education and healthcare and equality before the law, as well as the rights to protest and participate in free elections. Even if the embargo disappeared tomorrow, Obama repeated, the Cuban people would not be well placed to take advantage of that change unless the state eliminated obstacles to greater participation in the economy and politics.

Youth, Migration, and Miami

Obama specifically addressed Cuba’s young people five times during his speech at the Gran Teatro.  In fact, one can read the entire speech as a case being made to Cuban youth about the fruits of free enterprise. But in so doing, Obama was also making a special plea to them: please stay in Cuba.

Many young people today talk openly about their desire to leave the country. In a conversation with two brothers in their mid-20s, one told me that all his closest friends were now living in the U.S.; the other told me that most of his friends remained in Cuba but most wanted to leave. The Cuban-born population in the U.S. has almost doubled since 1980, and between 2014 and 2015 alone, the number of Cubans arriving here has increased by 78 percent. It is this reality that Obama’s speech implicitly acknowledged. To Cuba’s young he spoke of a future they could construct in Cuba. “Young people of today will be able to live with dignity and achieve their dreams right here in Cuba.”  

Obama constructed an image of opportunity at home, opportunity without migration. He gave that image a name—Miami.  “In the United States, we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami.” This part of the speech was likely written with Cuban-American constituencies in mind, to appeal to those people who could help Obama and the Democrats generate perhaps decisive support in Miami for the elimination of the embargo. Many people, inside and outside Cuba, associate Miami with counterrevolution and wealth.  But Miami, like Cuba, is a complicated, changing place. The changes in Miami are more than a question of the passing away of an older generation of “golden exiles” or the greater political flexibility of their children and grandchildren. Just as important is the fact that the Cuban population in Miami is daily replenished by new arrivals. Those who arrive at the Miami airport may or may not realize that many of the people who work there—rolling wheelchairs, sweeping floors, selling coffee, cellophaning suitcases—are Cubans like themselves who have arrived in the last several years.  In Miami, one is as likely to run into the child of an executed former revolutionary as the former secretary of Che Guevara or a former member of the uniformed revolutionary police.  The alumnae association of the Vladimir Lenin school, Cuba’s most prestigious, selective (both academically and politically) high school, I’m told, is run out of Miami. To talk, as Obama did—and as most people would—of children and grandchildren of the revolution (and mean Cuba) and of the children and grandchildren of exile (and mean Miami) misses a crucial point: Miami is full of the children and grandchildren of the revolution.

In Havana, I have also heard another description of Miami: una Cuba sin negros.  A Cuba without blacks. The description, or epithet, does not apply in a literal sense; there are, of course, Afro-Cubans in Miami. But they represent a significantly lower proportion of the population there, when compared to their numbers in Cuba itself. (Afro-Cubans constitute about a third of the population in Cuba, according to official census reports, though the number is much higher according to many other studies). So, when Obama hailed Miami as a monument to what Cuban entrepreneurship might produce in Cuba, I know some people who grew uneasy.  That particular association may have dulled the power of what he said explicitly about race in other parts of the speech.


One of the most surprising moments in Obama’s speech came early, when the United States’ first black president began outlining the commonalities between the two countries by declaring: “We share the same blood.”  I held my breath, unsure if he meant what I wanted him to mean. He then said something obvious yet unprecedented for an American president: Slavery built the U.S. That history, moreover, accounts for a fundamental commonality between the two countries. “We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans. Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.”  Thus Obama represented a shared history of slavery, and a shared sense of racial identity, as common ground between Cuba and the U.S.

In a country in which political discourse rarely mentions race explicitly, Obama seemed to be saying to Cubans of African descent, I see you, and I understand your centrality in the past and future of your country. Towards the end of the speech, Obama once more returned to the question of race. “We both realize we have more work to do to promote equality in our own countries—to reduce discrimination based on race in our own countries. And in Cuba, we want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent.”

Could this be why Obama chose to dine at a black-owned paladar, the San Cristóbal, one of perhaps four or five black-owned restaurants out of more than 700 in the city?  Was the visit meant to signal that the U.S. leader understood that the emerging turn to private business and an open market—which the new rapprochement has accelerated exponentially but not invented—must explicitly encourage black entrepreneurship? If entrepreneurship is the Cuban wave of the future—and this seems to be something both the Cuban state and the American government agree on—then projects explicitly designed to broaden access and resources for Afro-Cuban business projects are key.

Goodbye Cuba, Goodbye Obama

A young Cuban I watched the speech with loved it. However, when it concluded, she lamented how neither Obama nor the speech itself would raise her salary or lower food prices. An elderly woman in the room reminded her that the U.S. president couldn’t make Cuban policy, nor even change U.S. policy on his own—referring to the fact that the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress seems, for the moment at least, unwilling to end the embargo. Then the older woman added: “That is what is both good and bad about the American system.” Both women then asked me about why the United States prohibited presidents from running for a third term in office. I was reminded for some reason of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s King George singing about George Washington’s retirement in Hamilton. In other words, wouldn’t it make sense for him to just continue?

Soon after the speech, Obama headed to the baseball game, and a few innings in, to the airport.  So ended Obama’s historic trip to Cuba. As Obama departed, the official Cuban press immediately resumed saying the things they’ve said for years. In this view, the speech was merely a more smoothly delivered example of American meddling, or injerencia. The Right in the U.S. did the same, castigating Obama for being too nice to Castro and too apologetic about the U.S.

But as one Cuban friend and academic told me, the politics surrounding Cuba very often hides in what is not said. Skeptics on both sides delight in reminding everyone that the trip has changed nothing. But they know that some things, including aspects of travel and economic policy in both countries, already have. They also know that many, many Cubans were deeply moved by Obama’s visit. So, like any self-respecting historian, I’m obligated to remind everyone that it is way too soon to tell.

Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University. Her most recent book is the award-winning Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (2014). Follow her on Twitter at @Adita_Ferrer.

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