Two days that shook Cuba
In the coming weeks we will have time to fully assess the implications of President Obama's historic trip to Cuba. Its impact reminds me of the concentric circles caused by a stone thrown into a body of water, which slowly expand. But it is already possible to draw some conclusions.
The main one is that, for a time, the country will continue to look like the one he found upon his arrival, but it will not really be the same. Three earthquakes shook Cuba in just 48 hours.
One. The fabrication and export of sugarcoated perceptions and images of Cuba's reality suffered a crushing blow. This is one of the three main pillars of totalitarianism, along with repression and citizens' total dependence on the State.
Cuba suffered, at its core, a blow to the regime's cornerstone contention: the inevitability of lacking of political and civil rights in what is a "besieged country."
As the external conflict fades, the matrix of the internal conflict is laid bare: a model of State that denies citizens their right to freely exercise sovereignty over their country and to determine the system of government they prefer.
Moreover, the image of Raúl Castro that had been cultivated for almost a decade was shattered. His performance revealed his persona – as a moderate, pragmatic and efficient leader who was open to all – to be a sham. From his pettiness upon Obama's arrival, at which he failed to offer him and his family an umbrella when they got off their plane, under the rain, to his wielding, in front of cameras from around the world, of repression against the Ladies in White on Palm Sunday. This was followed by a disastrous press conference at which the general/president displayed his ineptitude and authoritarianism. The world was able to witness first-hand the dramatic difference between "exported" Raúl and the other, very different one that Cubans are forced to put up with daily.
Two. Obama announced that the party was over, explaining to his reluctant hosts that he had exhausted the unilateral concessions the Executive could make. The lifting of the embargo is up to the Congress and no one - the US president pointed out - can say when that will happen. He ran down the measures he had already taken as president, and pointed out that they still had not been taken advantage of by the Cuban government, which is only interested in those that benefit State-owned enterprises. He told them that if they wanted to get the embargo lifted they would have to take not only economic steps, but also others with regards to freedoms and human rights, in order to bolster the arguments of those Congressional representatives who wish to end the sanctions.
The reason why Obama was able to issue executive orders that favor the emerging non-State sector is that it did not even exist when the Helms-Burton Law was passed and, hence, is exempt from it. Obama is opposed to the embargo, but it can only be repealed by the US Congress. He knows this, but he still sometimes oversteps his executive power in an effort to weaken the measure. Raúl Castro knows it too, but keeps on using it against Obama in an effort to salvage his "besieged country" rhetoric, while denying Cuban businesspeople the opportunity to take advantage of the numerous measures authorized by the US president to benefit them.
The reason is very simple, but had remained veiled for decades: the Castros are only interested only in strengthening their power, and profiting from it. State enterprises are capriciously handled as if they were they were their personal property, not the country's. For the first time a President of the United States was able to reveal that reality, before millions of Cubans glued to their television sets, by rendering evident the selfishness of denying Cuban entrepreneurs the benefits of the new US policy.
Three. President Obama explicitly called for the adoption of a model that fosters prosperity through freedom, while the Castros only aim to modernize their authoritarianism with the resources stemming from the easing of the embargo.
In his televised speech, aired live across the island, Obama outlined his view, in a respectful but effective and clear manner. "I can't force you to agree, but you should know what I think. I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections."
As tangible evidence that he was not willing to make concessions in this area, Obama insisted on meeting with dissidents and opponents that he himself chose, and reiterated his admiration, recognition and support for them. He listened to the criticisms of and suggestions about his new policy toward Cuba, and addressed, one by one, each person's concerns, privately reiterating his commitment, which he had already made public, to freedoms and human rights on the island.
At a meeting with entrepreneurs he compared the embargo to the current governance regime on the island: "If something does not work for 50 years, it must be changed. "That applies to what the US is doing, but also to Cuba," Obama said.
"Don't steal ideas from places where they don't work. There are economic models that don't work, and that is not an ideological view of mine. It is an objective reality," he stated, besides citing the development achieved by Miami as a monument to the industriousness and ingenuity of Cuban exiles, whose patriotism and pain he had already referred to previously.
And it was in that context of entrepreneurship in which Obama identified the truly transcendent value of the Internet. Not as a mere political right to access different opinions, but in terms of a right to development, and as a way to connect Cuba with the 21st century.
During all his appearances Obama went out of his way to remind everyone that the United States was prepared to facilitate transformation, not to impose it. The spell of the besieged nation argument, as a narrative resource, has been broken. "Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down - but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new. "
And, looking at Raúl Castro, he said: "And to President Castro -- who I appreciate being here today, I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people -- and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders."
Raúl Castro decided to see off the president he did not wish to welcome. His "old government of dead people and flowers" had been shaken in just two days. I thought I could sense the relief when Air Force One took off from José Martí National Airport.
Did the "genie" escape from the bottle? No. But he was able to stick his head out for two days and to glimpse the possibility of a future better than today.
Obama's policy requires, undoubtedly, adjustments and more focus. His unreserved commendation of the agreement reached on 17 December undermines his capacity for self-correction. But Cubans on the island and in exile also need to identify basic points of agreement in order to more effectively promote the changes they really deserve. However, I think they are in better position to meet this challenge after this trip.