President Obama's Cuban pen pal
Ileana Yarza, a 75-year-old retired Cuban economist, has been writing to President Barack Obama since he was a presidential candidate, but it was his last response that really touched her.
It arrived via the first direct-mail flight between the two countries in more than five decades. The flight left Wednesday and on Thursday a mail delivery man knocked on her door with an official-looking envelope that said USA-Cuba Direct, with the White House as a return address.
In his letter, the president said he hoped his note “serves as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between the two nations.”
Yarza said she was visiting her cousin in New Jersey when the president first came on her radar. “I really like the guy,” she said Saturday. In her missives, she asked for his help in lifting the embargo.
“When he said the embargo just didn’t work, I wrote him back right away. I said I could die in peace because I had heard a president say the embargo doesn’t work,” said Yarza. “I want him to do all he can, in spite of the negative forces, to lift the embargo. I’ve seen the Cuban people suffer so much from it.”
When she heard that Obama planned to visit Cuba, she wrote him her fifth letter and asked him to stop by her Vedado home for coffee. It was her second invitation to the president to come for coffee.
Yarza said she understands if he doesn’t have the time. “Maybe he can come when he is no longer president and just a normal American,” she said. “The important thing is that he is coming here to Cuba.”
The president made no definite promises, but his latest letter said: “I am looking forward to visiting Havana to foster this relationship [between the U.S. and Cuba] and highlight our shared values — and, hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee.”
They could talk in her garden surrounded by potted and hanging plants with roosters crowing in the background, or sit in the wicker rocking chairs in her sitting room surrounded by walls full of Cuban art. (Her late son Alejandro was an art dealer, and she also sells art).
Other than her strong feelings about the embargo, Yarza said she’s not a political person. But if she were an American, Yarza said, she would have voted for Obama.
She intends to write the president a short thank-you note for “his beautiful letter.”
Yarza waited to open it until her children arrived at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“It was a very sweet letter — not at all cold and distant. I was surprised and happy to know that Obama had read my letter,” she said. “How many letters he must receive!”