Cuba

What a Havana family saw as it watched President Obama

María Lastres snaps a cellphone picture of her husband, Jesús Magán, as they watch President Obama speak from their Havana apartment.
María Lastres snaps a cellphone picture of her husband, Jesús Magán, as they watch President Obama speak from their Havana apartment. The Miami Herald

Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reporters watched President Barack Obama’s speech with Cubans on the island and in South Florida.

HAVANA — María Lastres sat nervously, bent over, her leg bouncing. Her husband, Jesús Magán, could hardly keep still. President Barack Obama was on TV, just a few miles from their modest Havana apartment, speaking truths to the Cuban government — on Cuban soil.

They broke their rapt attention only to yelp, again and again, Cubans’ favorite interjection — “¡Ñó!” — and to spontaneously applaud in unadultered astonishment.

“Who would have thought we’d see this,” Magán said, agape. “I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!”

President Barack Obama encouraged Cubans to embrace democracy and its leaders to tolerate dissent and criticism, during a much-anticipated and nationally televised speech Tuesday that highlighted how much the longtime foes have in common.

Cubans intent on listening to every word Obama uttered on the island had little choice but to tune in from home Tuesday to catch his landmark speech. The government didn’t put up large screens outside, as it does for other big events like the soccer World Cup, and Havana offers few places — most of them for foreign tourists — to watch television in public.

Lastres cradled the couple’s mutt, Loli, and cranked up the volume when Obama took the lectern. Each moment he dabbled in Spanish prompted a little cheer. She clapped when Obama noted the symbolic end to the Cold War (“Finally!”). His mention of Miami rapper Pitbull made her chuckle — Cubans love him “madly,” she said, and her daughter, who’s in seventh grade, dreams of being Selena Gomez or Katy Perry (or a diplomat). When Obama mentioned boxers Muhammad Ali of the U.S. and Teófilo Stevenson of Cuba, Magán lamented “the fight of the century that never happened.”

Who would have thought we’d see this. I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!

Jesús Magán

At one point, after Obama said, “Creo en el pueblo cubano” — “I believe in the Cuban people” — Magán grabbed his iPhone and asked Lastres to snap his picture as he posed next to the TV set, giving a thumbs up.

“This is the best photo of my life,” he said in English (he also works on the side as a translator. And as an artist).

“Let me watch!” his wife chided, shushing him.

Husband and wife are undeniable fans of the U.S.: An American flag has hung from their balcony for several days — still a striking sight in Havana — and Lastres unfurled it proudly after Obama spoke.

But both also praised Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s handling of Cuba post-Fidel Castro. And neither expected Obama to go as far as he did in his remarks.

“There he goes! There he goes! Here comes the big stuff,” Lastres said as Obama turned to discuss democracy and human rights.

Agárrate,” Magán chimed in. Hold on.

“Oh my God,” Magán said in disbelief after Obama pushed freedom of speech. “Ay ay ay.”

They listened pensively to the president’s remarks about Cuban exiles, both Lastres and Magán holding their hands on their chins.

“He’s a church preacher,” Magán concluded of Obama’s delivery.

Later, pundits on the state-run Cubavisión network would pick apart Obama’s words. They would deride the reference of Cuban-American U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as “not particularly good friends of Cuba.” They would call Cuban Americans “un grupito” — a little group — unrepresentative of real Cubans. They would dismiss U.S. democracy, asserting in practice it’s a one-party system run by “the party of money” with two factions, Republican and Democrat.

“Fifty percent of people don’t vote,” Ernesto García Iturbe said. “It’s not a democracy that represents most of the people.”

Lastres and Magán were having none of it.

When Obama wrapped up with a “¡Sí se puede!” Magán yelled, “¡Wepa!

“That’s Raúl’s slogan,” he noted. “Make the man a card-carrying member of the Communist Party!”

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