On the first official day of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba, a wind swept in from the north and sent waves crashing over the city’s Malecón seawall — perhaps symbolic of the changes the president would like to see on the island.
But there were plenty of reminders that change may come slowly to this nation of 11 million people, from the detentions of dissidents just hours before Obama’s plane touched down to Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s defiant words that Cuba had no political prisoners and if it did, he would release them immediately.
The clouds had dissipated by Obama’s final day in Havana, when he delivered his centerpiece speech Tuesday. It evoked the pain of exile and isolation and included the moving words of Cuban patriot José Martí as well as Cubanisms from ropa vieja to la pelota.
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Even most of the dissidents who attended a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy with Obama spoke highly of the speech.
“He managed all his messages without offending anyone,” said Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas, who was in the audience at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso for the speech.
In trying to lay the vestiges of the Cold War to rest, Obama said, “For all of the politics, people are people, and Cubans are Cubans.”
The president was clear about the continued differences between the two countries, and his preference for democracy. But he also said Cubans should be the protagonists of their own future and defended their right to mobilize and protest to improve their lives.
While acknowledging the troubled and complicated history between Cuba and the United States, he said that with the new U.S.-Cuba relationship, excuses that Cuba’s problems are all the fault of the United States are evaporating.
“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba,” he said.
Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.
President Barack Obama, in speech to the Cuban people
Addressing Castro, Obama said, “I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.”
And then he added: “I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people — and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.”
There were moments of awkwardness for sure as the two sides tried to feel each other out. Hosting the first sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years was a new experience for the Cubans and there were mixed messages, from a lackluster welcome at the airport to Castro’s testiness during an unprecedented news conference.
Even though the president wanted to reach out to the Cuban people, he was largely whisked around town in a black Mercedes-Benz with dark windows, unlike Pope Francis, who traveled the route from the airport in his pope mobile last September, waving and smiling at the crowds, and made many public appearances.
But his nationally televised speech played well, as did his appearance at the Tampa Bay Rays baseball game against the Cuban national team. For a nation used to reading tea leaves, Castro sitting with Obama and chatting with his family at the ball game after such a frank and challenging speech was significant.
And so was the fact that Castro and other high-ranking officials — all smiling and seemingly in good spirits — accompanied the Obama family to the tarmac and waved good bye.
Major League Baseball operated in its own parallel universe this week, setting up a beachhead at the Melia Cohiba Hotel and bringing a parade of baseball legends from Derek Jeter to Luis Tiant to town for the exhibition game.
People were excited about the game and the players, making MLB’s sports diplomacy a success.
In his speech, Obama gave a nod to baseball as well, saying: “We share a national pastime, la pelota, and later today our players will compete on the same Havana field that Jackie Robinson played on before he made his Major League debut.”
The president appeared most relaxed when chatting with Cuban entrepreneurs, and Obama’s business agenda seemed to gained traction on the trip.
The White House said business deals were expected during the visit, and in fact, they did begin to rain down in the days before and during the president’s trip.
Among the companies that made announcements about new business ties were the online lodging service Airbnb, which has 4,000 Cuban listings and can now offer its services to non-U.S. customers; Carnival Corp., which got approval to sail its Fathom line from Miami to the Port of Havana; Western Union and Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
The latter is perhaps most symbolic of the changes that are coming. By the end of the year, the Hotel Quinta Avenida will be renovated and carry the name of one of the American company’s brands: Four Points by Sheraton.
A partnership with Cuba’s Gran Caribe will also bring the renovation and rebranding of the historic Hotel Inglaterra as part of Starwood’s Luxe collection, and a third hotel management contract is in the works.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was in Cuba with a host of other Cabinet members, also announced that U.S. industry-funded research and marketing programs would be working with Cuba on research and agricultural productivity, nutrition, food security and sustainable resource management exchanges.
The idea is to develop such a strong constituency among American business for engagement that Obama’s policies become irreversible — even after he leaves office.
All well and good, said the Cubans — but what about the embargo?
Obama answered in his speech.
“As president of the United States, I’ve called on our Congress to lift the embargo. It is an outdated burden on the Cuban people. It's a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba,” he said.
For a few days, little Cuba was the center of the universe, with the president of the free world delivering a nationally televised address, corporate chieftains trying to cut deals and American baseball players, some idolized by generations of Cubans, walking the streets of Havana.
Colombian peace negotiators also were in Havana trying to find common ground to end that country’s decades-old guerrilla war. Even the FARC negotiators were at the ball game.
But the week isn’t over yet, and the Rolling Stones, known throughout their long careers for breaking through barriers, will give a free concert Friday night as a gift to the Cuban people. It’s the first concert in Cuba ever by a British rock group and the Stones have promised to go all out.
Where this momentous third week in March will lead is anyone’s guess.
But Obama has an idea about who he wants to benefit.
“I want the Cuban people — especially the young people — to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope… hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country,” the president said.
That theme was echoed at Latinoamericano stadium before the ball game, as Cuban toddlers escorted the players on to the field as they were announced. Then the baseball players picked up the tykes — Cuba’s future — and carried them off the field.
Perhaps Obama was thinking of them when he said: “Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down — but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.”