Up Front and Personal

Obama’s Cuban Gamble Is Not a Sure Winner

By Jorge I. Dominguez-Lopez

On Palm Sunday, the president of the United States arrived in Havana in the midst of bad omens. That morning the Cuban police had violently repressed a peaceful demonstration of the Ladies in White, an opposition group formed by wives of political prisoners and ex-prisoners. Cuban President Raúl Castro didn’t go to the airport to welcome President Barack Obama. There were no red carpets or military bands. The message was clear: Obama had been invited, but he was not welcome. To make matters worse, when Air Force One landed in Havana, a violent tropical downpour started to fall.

Critics had warned Obama that visiting Cuba was a reward to a dictatorship that would not reciprocate his conciliatory gestures. The humiliating arrival seemed to confirm those fears: the visit could be a disaster for President Obama.

When the door of the plane opened, Obama carried an umbrella to shelter his wife from the rain. Behind them were their daughters and his mother-in-law. For those who have not lived under a totalitarian regime, it is hard to imagine the impact of that image. For Cuban government officials, who never appear with their spouses – no matter if it rains or shines – that image of a president holding the umbrella for his wife, followed by his daughters was the first “scandal” of the visit.

From the airport, President Obama and his family went to tour Old Havana. They went to the Cathedral and met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Then they ate at a private restaurant. (For three decades, the government banned all private businesses on the island.)

Obama thus began his visit by paying tribute to two values the Cuban government tried to annihilate over the last 57 years – the Cuban people’s faith in God and the faith in their own entrepreneurship.

The next day a press conference was held. Before Obama’s flawless intervention, Cubans saw a Raul Castro who barely could read aloud his gray, soulless speech.

On Tuesday morning, President Obama gave a speech at the National Theatre. “I plant a white rose,” Obama said in Spanish, quoting the famous José Martí’s verse. The speech, which begins by recognizing the complicated history of the relationship between the two countries, is a call to look to the future, not the past.

He also made clear the differences between the two governments, in a country where citizens are repressed every day for expressing their opinions, where for 57 years the supreme leader has had the same last name, where there is only one legally recognized party and where all mass media belong to the government; and where the last democratic election was held in 1952.

There is no guarantee that his new policy will achieve anything. Criticism of his decision to go to Cuba is still valid, but President Obama executed his plan with a finesse and elegance that deserve praise, and that Cubans will long remember.

Dominguez-Lopez is the editor of Nuestra Voz, the diocesan Spanish monthly.

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