Cuba After Obama

Obama sought to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War” in Havana last week, but the path to reconciliation will be long and challenging. 

March 29, 2016

(Fernando Medina/ Flickr)

This is the second piece in a three-part NACLA web series on President Obama's trip to Cuba and Argentina last week. Please click here to read historian Ada Ferrer's reflection on Obama's speech in Havana.

It is impossible to articulate the mix of emotions stirred by President Obama’s trip to Cuba last week. Jealousy is one, thanks to messages from friends witnessing history in Havana. Incredulidad, or disbelief, is another. I am still not sure what was more disorienting: hearing the Star Spangled Banner in the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, or watching a U.S. head of state file past a revolutionary honor guard as the anti-imperialist anthem of the 26th of July Movement played.

Island residents must also feel sentimentally and analytically hung-over. Every bit of mise-en-scène deserved dissection. The symbols and uncanny juxtapositions—POTUS laying a wreath in plain sight of Che Guevara’s visage, Miami real-estate magnates seated next to Havana sandwich stand owners at an entrepreneurship summit—were almost too jam-packed for the intended historical despojo (or cleansing) to fully work its effects. Before the first pitch of a culminating baseball game, between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, a flock of doves majestically launched into the sky. Going back to 1959, when a white bird landed on a triumphant Fidel Castro’s shoulder mid-speech, spectacle has been a central tool of Cuban statecraft. Executives at Major League Baseball apparently took note.

The morning after, life in Cuba continued as before. Obama’s declarations of peace and goodwill were appreciated. But Cubans’ refrigerators, as one woman quoted in an article put it, remained less than full. “Obama [was] not inside.” Starwood Hotels has now signed a deal to operate on the island, the first U.S. chain to do so. Yet an even greater influx of nostalgia-seeking tourists does not make a sustainable development strategy. The state sector is still bloated, while micromanaging regulations constrain the growth of small businesses from below. Much of the U.S. embargo—while hardly responsible for all of Cubans’ ills—continues in place, creating a disincentive for Cuba’s authorities to undertake further reforms.

In this way, the most important thing, as the journalist Elaine Díaz wrote perceptively, is not what happened during President Obama’s visit but what Cubans, their government, and U.S. policymakers do now. A vision for economic advancement from the ground up is at stake. So is the forging of a more democratic, though potentially still socialist, politics on Cubans’ terms. Even so, in an unprecedented public speech at Havana’s Grand Theater, broadcast live on Cuban television, President Obama delivered a rousing message upon which such a future might be based. That, perhaps, was the most stunning result of his trip.

Throwing off History’s Weight?

From the start of his remarks, President Obama seemed intent on performing a historical catharsis. “I have come here,” he declared, “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship.” Obama went on to recognize many of Cuba’s grievances against the North, none more central than the demand that the U.S. embargo be lifted in full. But he also took the remarkable step of acknowledging, briefly but explicitly, the United States’ longer history in Cuba as a neocolonial power.

Yet even while gesturing to a number of historical debts, Obama issued a political challenge at once bold and respectful. Cubans, he said, should no more be prisoners to past policies than the United States. Private businesses should be easier to open. Groups should be free to organize in support of, or to criticize, the policies of their political leaders. “Having removed the shadow of history” from the U.S.-Cuba relationship, Obama argued, it should be possible for Cuba’s government to not fear the diverse voices and direct voting power of its citizens. Crucially, making good on this call would benefit not only those on the island who identify as dissidents—to whom Obama mostly appeared to be referring—but all manner of civil society groups and projects who currently occupy a growing “alegal” in-between space.

Of course, throwing off history’s weight is never easy. The President’s references to his own background made that point. Obama powerfully invoked the Civil Rights’ struggle as a model of organizing and protest that made his rise to the presidency possible. But he also deftly acknowledged that the United States, like Cuba, continues to face problems of racial bias, discrimination, and structural inequality. As an African-American leader in front of Cuban officials— officials who long erroneously insisted that the Revolution had put all of the island’s own racial issues to bed— these statements represented a striking contrast of substance, humility, and self-critique.

Lingering Doubts

Despite such rhetorical fireworks, many Cubans still harbor suspicions of the new U.S. policy, whether watching events unfold on or off the island, or from the left or the right. Namely, many wonder if the administration’s language of rapprochement only masks the pursuit of commercial interests. U.S. companies, salivating at the thought of an untapped “Cuban market,” surely care most about their bottom lines. Most U.S. regulatory openings, in turn, have targeted the island’s incipient small business sector, not systems of public support. For now, policymakers in Washington find private innovators more palatable to back than socialist state enterprises. In this way, they sidestep the political question of whether full economic engagement should be conditioned on the Cuban government further opening its economy first.

Analysts, too, are right to pick apart facts and complications the speech left out. Is it possible, asked Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff on Twitter, for the White House to assert the United States’ new respect for Cuban sovereignty while refusing to put the status of Guantánamo Bay on the table? Can the President praise the work of Cuban doctors fighting Ebola in West Africa while U.S. migration policies still encourage those doctors to defect? Perhaps most challenging, can the United States say it has abandoned “regime change” as explicit policy while continuing to appropriate federal dollars to Cuban dissident groups that have political transition as their goal? In the long term, the answer to all three questions is “No.” Indeed, in line with their focus on Cuban entrepreneurship, one wonders why U.S. officials don’t advocate “privatizing” sources of dissident support. Organizers of the island’s nineteenth-century independence movements, let alone Fidel Castro’s revolutionary insurgency in the 1950s, certainly never counted on a U.S. congressional check.

Other parts of the speech, meanwhile, recycled several long-standing, even tired bits of lore. At one point, the President highlighted his own story as vindication of an enduring American dream. A long section dedicated to Cuban-Americans, on the other hand, scored points in Miami for acknowledging their pain, but reduced the history of the Cuban diaspora mostly to the stories of those who left in the 1960s. References, similarly, to South Florida’s vibrant economy as a monument to Cuban capability may not have fully convinced. After all, far from a model of equitable development, the city’s expanding forest of condo towers serves in many respects as an offshore bank account for Latin American wealth.

Hope and Change, a lo Cubano

And still, despite these doubts, Obama’s words struck a moving, seductive balance between respecting Cuba’s future as Cubans’ to make, while at the same time raising the principles that the United States purports to defend. The values incarnated in all revolutions, Obama insisted— “America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, liberation movements around the world”— are best channeled and defended through democratic institutions. As Cubans pursued their own sovereign path, in other words, they would do well to embrace a wider range of ideas and debate.

Historians can parse the too-easy parallelism drawn between distinct historical processes and time periods. But these lines, along with a pointed reference to the current U.S. presidential campaign, might resonate as Cubans look to create a future in which they at least have a greater voice. “Just stop and consider this fact,” the President joked, after recognizing that the U.S. electoral model left much to be desired. “You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist.  (Laughter and applause.)  Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That's a measure of our progress as a democracy.” Cuban television and politics, both spheres still dominated by white men, may never be the same.

It is unlikely the visit will push Congress to fully lift the embargo before the end of Obama’s term. Nor will Cuba’s domestic political dynamics transform overnight. Already, talibanes, or strict loyalists, in Cuba’s internal political sphere are attempting to expose the traces of an older benevolent paternalism, palpable in the President’s calls for citizen empowerment, as a dangerous Trojan horse. They might have a point, if only their own defenses of the status quo— “the freedom we need we achieved in 1959,” said one— did not sound so out of touch.

But before inertia sets in, I would like to believe that Obama’s words will have achieved more than symbolism, and that Cubans will embrace their more broadly inspirational sentiments. “I want the Cuban people—especially the young people—to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope,” Obama said. “Not the false promise which insists that things are better than they really are, or the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow. Hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape.” Schooled in skepticism and disappointment, some may not bet the farm that a brighter tomorrow will quickly spring. Nonetheless, for thirty minutes, they, we, all felt tempted to believe. “The future!” shouted one man watching at home. “Yes, change!”

The Challenge of Reconciliation

It is an enduring, if ironic and even troubling testament to the “ties of singular intimacy” linking Cuba and the United States (pace former U.S. President William McKinley) that such a message should come from a sitting U.S. head of state. “The future of Cuba has to be in the hands of the Cuban people,” Obama said repeatedly. Cuba’s perennial challenge, no doubt, has been how to chart a path of sovereignty and independence with respect to a rotating cast of foreign suitors. We may be naïve, the Cuban writer and critic Iván de la Nuez suggests, to think that a reformulated U.S. policy does not disguise a modern reincarnation of John Quincy Adams’s desire to pluck Cuba’s apple from a Caribbean political and economic tree. Still, it took a U.S. president going to Havana for someone to declare a soaring new faith in what Cubans can achieve. “I believe in the Cuban people,” President Obama said simply, channeling what many islanders might like to hear more of from their own leaders.

Obama, indeed, ended his speech by emphasizing another heart-warming goal in which most Cubans also want to place their faith: reconciliation. It is an enchanting word, suggesting an almost magical mending of fences between the U.S. and Cuban governments but also the Cuban people, islanders and exiles long caught in the middle of an international conflict spanning both sides of the Florida Straits. “It is time, now,” the President said, after invoking the examples of several Cuban-Americans who had traveled back to the island recently, “for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.”

Here, again, is where my greatest doubts arise. Simply declaring a new beginning rarely works. Not only do thorny issues, like property claims and damages for the effects of the embargo, remain unresolved in the Cuban case. “Reconciliation,” time and again, has been proven to founder if not accompanied by an honest accounting of past wrongs, on all sides, and a measure of justice for those who were victims. Just look at Spain, where an explicit policy of borrón y cuenta nueva (starting with a clean slate) after Franco’s death delayed but did not impede continued haggling over the conflicts of that country’s Civil War. Or consider what has occurred across Latin America, where even the most carefully designed truth and reconciliation commissions continue to be subjects of controversy and dispute. For Cubans, the process of building bridges between Miami and Havana is already bringing rising inequities on the island into sharp relief. But even more complicated is the conceptual question of to what degree lasting reconciliation can be achieved without some kind of political transition at home. The way in which Cubans’ conflicts among themselves have long been intertwined with, but not reducible to, their geopolitical beefs with the North doesn’t make things any easier.

President Obama gave Cubans a precious gift of hope. What they do with it is yet to be seen. A massive concert by the Rolling Stones Friday capped off what was by any measure an extraordinary week. Yet even as habaneros danced, ignoring the past, doing so going forward may still prove a difficult and risky dream.

Michael J. Bustamante is a Ph.D. Candidate in Latin American History at Yale University. He will join the faculty of Florida International University as Assistant Professor of Latin American History in the fall.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.