Teary-eyed Cubans watched in disbelief as they beheld the spectacle on Sunday of a beaming President Barack Obama, First Family in tow, stepping on to former “enemy” turf at José Marti international airport. For many, the visit is nothing short of a miracle after half a century of isolation from their superpower neighbor.
“Yes we came”
Cuban artist Aristides Estaban, aka Ares, extended a hearty bienvenido to Havana to Barack Obama by appropriating -- and tweaking -- the imagery and defining slogan of the US president’s iconic 2008 campaign poster.
In Ares’s rendering, a smiling Obama sports a guayabera, the lightweight shirt worn outside trousers that’s a perennial staple of Cuban male wardrobes, a cigar jutting from its pocket.
The US chief executive poses against the backdrop of the soaring monument to the Cuban independence hero, José Marti.
Poster art by Ares
The Ares poster sums up the sense of incredulity, laced with hope, with which Cubans are greeting the against-all-odds advent on their soil of a young - a generation younger than their own octogenarian leader - American president who looks like many of them and who shares their dreams and collective yearning for a better life.
“I can’t believe what’s happening right now,” said Laura Pérez, a Cuban watching the grainy images of Obama’s arrival in Havana on an old TV set in her home on the outskirts of the capital. The New York Times reported that Pérez’s eyes filled with tears as she covered her mouth.
Her outpouring of emotion wasn’t just for show.
Obama’s visit, as if on cue, is unleashing Cubans’ pent-up emotions at the prospect that their brutal estrangement from the “imperialist” aggressor to the North is entering its endgame.
As “historic” presidential visits go, this one ranks right up there with Nixon’s opening to China, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost-galvanized courtship of the West.
It’s also the capstone of a foreign policy credo outlined by Obama in his first inaugural address on January 20, 2009.
“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” Obama declared, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Obama and his advisers harbor few illusions that Cuba’s regime will blossom into a full-blown democracy overnight. Nor are they naïve about the ongoing repression faced by those who resist the Castro regime.
In the hours before Air Force One touched down in Havana, Cuban police arrested dozens of protesters from a dissident group known as the Ladies in White, comprised of wives and mothers of political prisoners.
They have been staging Sunday protests in front of a central Havana church for years, but perhaps believed that Obama’s imminent arrival would give the police pause before cracking down.
But if Obama’s visit is no elixir, it is a needed first step towards reversing what was always an unnatural divorce between the island nation and its neighbor just a cigar’s toss away across the Florida strait.
The reality is that the embargo – which Obama, Cuba and a growing chorus in Congress want lifted – has been a signal failure.
It never served its intended purpose of driving the communist revolutionaries from power. Rather, it became a propaganda cudgel that the Castro regime used to bludgeon the “capitalist imperialists” in Washington.
Travel bans and embargos
All the slings and arrows of Cubans’ outrageous fortune, the regime argued, were a result of the economic straitjacket to which they constrained by a succession of American presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, who first imposed a limited embargo on sugar, guns and oil in 1960.
That was followed, in 1961, by a cut-off in diplomatic relations.
John Kennedy went the final mile when he ordered a full-trade embargo on Cuba in February 1962 – followed a year later by a ban on any travel to the island by Americans, and vice versa.
Fidel Castro -- and the embargo -- ended up outlasting 10 American administrations.
Despite some loosening of Cuba’s economic vise, Obama’s hands are tied when it comes to this antiquated hallmark of the US-Cuban freeze.
His desire to lift the embargo is thwarted by the only body empowered to do so: Congress, currently full of hostile Republicans inclined to shout “No!” at everything Obama puts on the table before they even consider the proposal.
As an American by birth, who grew up in New York, the Cuba travel ban always struck me as a great insult in a country whose national anthem includes the words, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
If we were so free and so brave, I wondered, then where did my government come by granting itself the right to deny me an opportunity to see Cuba for myself, meet its people and form my own opinions, free of Uncle Sam’s strictures?
A zest for life
It was only after being naturalized as a British citizen, and obtaining a UK passport, that I finally travelled to Cuba, in December 2008. The trip came just weeks after Obama’s election, yet before his landmark inaugural speech in which he spoke of reaching out to adversaries.
Cuba was still very much a nation frozen in aspic.
I was left with an indelible image of a diverse land of grinding poverty and penury alongside grace, elegance and beauty, and full of people whose lives of deprivation in the shadow of the world’s richest nation endowed them with a zest for life’s basic pleasures; people who showed tremendous resilience in the face of adversity.
Obama has described his visit as an opportunity to engage with ordinary Cubans. He seeks to renew a dialogue silenced by half a century of Cold War-era animosity. His ambition is to foster a new relationship, the fruits of which will be irreversible regardless of who might succeed him as president.
I snapped the picture below of a young girl holding a can of local cola during my 2008 visit to Havana. She had been sitting with her mother on a low wall running along Havana’s coastal boulevard, the Malecon.
Photo by Douglas Herbert
She would be a teenager today, and I often wonder, wherever she may be, what she makes of Obama’s visit. Will it be a harbinger of better things to come?
Millions of young Cubans are asking the same questions, as they contemplate a future that may no longer adhere to the same tired old script.