Fabiola Santiago

Post-Obama Cuba asks: And now what? No satisfaction in government response

Official poster for the Rolling Stones historic concert in Havana on March 25
Official poster for the Rolling Stones historic concert in Havana on March 25

“You come here wanting to hear salsa. I want to hear rock ’n’ roll.” Cuban singer David Rico of the group Aire Libre (Open Air) at Havana’s Yellow Submarine club.

There’s more than musical preference in this young rocker’s assessment of how Americans relate to Cuba in this “new day” branded by President Barack Obama and set to irreverent music by the Rolling Stones. For Cubans hoping to build a society with freedom of speech, assembly and free elections as cornerstones, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is a more apt anthem than salsa.

As soon as Obama left the island to tango with Argentina’s history, the Cuban regime unleashed its official press to counter his inspirational message, unearthing a litany of old charges against the United States — and particularly, Cuban exiles. The propaganda machine lauded the Castros’ leadership and pounced on Obama with a litany of complaints about what he forgot to say or do, including asking for “forgiveness for the crimes committed against our people,” as one pseudo journalist put it.

A historic presidential visit makes for a formidable moment, an energy-booster to those who work under the thumb of a repressive apparatus. It was especially so because Obama met behind closed doors for almost two hours in the U.S. Embassy with 13 activists and independent journalists representing a spectrum of opinion, and they left hopeful that the president means what he says. He will continue to support their efforts to democratize Cuba.

But like the anticipated Stones concert and past papal visits, the epic run through Havana of “San Obama” is an event that comes and goes. The forces in charge of maintaining the status quo in Cuba are counting on the vacuum that comes with the stage exit to continue to repress.

And now what?

Young Cuban leaders are making bold moves, taking up Obama at his word to “build something new” — but their work needs allies and support.

Activist Rosa María Payá, exiled after getting death threats for calls to the international community to investigate her father’s questionable death in a car crash four years ago, immediately returned to Cuba. On Thursday, the daughter of the late leader Oswaldo Payá delivered another 10,000 signatures to the headquarters of Cuba’s Popular Assembly, asking for a democratic referendum on the nation’s future. Her father had already collected 25,000 and was in eastern Cuba doing this kind of work when he was killed. A Spaniard in the car insists he was forced off the road by a government car.

Not only are lives still at risk — more than 300 activists were arrested before Obama’s visit — but some advances aren’t what they seem.

The tech center Google inaugurated is a step forward but a controlled one, brokered by rewarding Castro sympathizers. It gives a coveted Wi-Fi hotspot and the prestige of hosting a Google-sponsored technology zone in his studio to Kcho, a mediocre but official artist who’s a Castro protégé and calls Fidel his father.

Yet the government turned down Google’s proposal to connect all of Cuba for free.

It’s human nature to pay attention in times of crisis and historic turning points, then turn away when tears, accolades and fury die down.

But stay with the Cubans. No matter what sour notes the government peddles, they’re ready to rock ’n’ roll.

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