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Cuba After Obama Left

Cuba After Obama Left
BY JON LEE ANDERSON

In the first hours after President Barack Obama’s address to the Cuban
people last Tuesday, which he delivered on the main stage of Havana’s
impeccably restored nineteenth-century Gran Teatro, several Cubans I
know told me how moved by it they had been; some confessed to having
wept. Many quoted specific lines from what was a carefully nuanced piece
of speechwriting: “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold
War in the Americas” was one. There were mentions, too, of Obama’s story
about himself as the son of an African student and a white American
woman, and of how “democracy” had made it possible for him to become
President of the United States. These Cubans, who were from all walks of
life, were impressed, too, by Obama’s easy charisma and his use of Cuban
catchphrases and witticisms, and a couple of them recalled his praise of
Cuban resourcefulness when he said, in Spanish, “el cubano inventa del
aire”— roughly, Cubans are able to make things out of nothing. Obama
also deftly balanced appeals for greater freedom in Cuba with
acknowledgements of endemic American ills, such as racism. Raúl Castro’s
presence in the theatre audience seemed to signal his endorsement for
much of what Obama said—or at least a certain acquiescence to its
spirit. When Obama left the stage, Castro stood alongside Cuba’s ancient
prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, held up both hands in clasped fashion,
and grinned broadly. Cubans in the audience shouted “Viva, viva,” as if
to acknowledge the shared triumph of Obama’s visit and the
reconciliation under way between the two nations.

Or so it seemed. Later that day, in a meeting with a friend who is a
longtime loyalist of the Revolution, I asked her what she had thought of
Obama’s speech. She wrinkled her nose. “Well,” she began. “He said a lot
of nice things, and he was very polished, but let’s see what the reality
is.” I noted that Raúl himself had applauded Obama in the Teatro. He
hadn’t signalled any doubts, and indeed he had accompanied Obama to the
Cuba-U.S. baseball game afterward; we had all seen the two of them
chummily seated together, talking animatedly. Later, Castro, who had not
been at the airport when Obama arrived, had seen him off, walking him to
the foot of the stairway of Air Force One. So what was the real issue
worrying her? My friend shrugged. It had all been a bit too much, she
said. She couldn’t really explain.

My friend’s reaction was an early hint that Cuba’s deep state, in the
form of its Communist Party hard-liners, was unhappy. Their pushback
came swiftly, during that evening’s televised broadcast of a program
called “Mesa Redonda” (“The Roundtable”), in which several apparatchiks
sat around humorlessly dissecting the implications of the Obama visit.
On Wednesday, Granma, Cuba’s official Communist Party newspaper, ran an
editorial titled “What Obama Says and Doesn’t Say,” in which the writer
pointed out that Obama had used a teleprompter during his
speech—“something the people can’t see”—and questioned the sincerity of
his intentions.

The mood in Havana over the next couple of days was strangely moody.
Most habaneros, when asked about the Obama visit, spoke with a careful
neutrality. A few, talking privately, expressed their chagrin at the
churlishness of Cuba’s Party apparatchiks, and worried that, after all
of Obama’s effort, his overtures were being spurned. “Nothing will
change this place, ever,” one friend grumbled. Another apologized for
what she saw as the vulgarity of it all: “You don’t invite someone to
your house and then criticize them when they leave,” she said.

Then came the Rolling Stones concert, last Friday, at which Mick Jagger
told the crowd that he was pleased to be playing in a country that had
once banned the group. With good-natured complicity, he quipped, “But I
think change is in the air, isn’t it?” Many in the crowd roared their
assent, but I saw a few Cubans around me throwing up their hands and
raising their eyebrows theatrically, as if to say, actually, Mick, I’m
not sure about that.

Over the weekend, I met with another friend who works with Cuba’s
government. He remarked that Obama’s speech in the Gran Teatro had been
extraordinary, but added that it had seriously rattled a number of
people he knew. One had compared it, in terms of its subversive impact,
to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He was waiting to hear how Raúl’s
older brother, Fidel Castro, who is rarely seen in public and who had
kept a low profile during the Obama visit, reacted. He said, “Everyone
here knows Fidel doesn’t much like this opening with the gringos. Raúl
wants to go a lot faster, but if Fidel decides to kick up a real fuss,
the process could grind to a halt.”

And, on Monday of this week, Fidel broke his silence in the form of a
full-page letter published in Granma. It was titled “El Hermano Obama,”
or “Brother Obama,” and in his punctilious fashion, Fidel made it clear
that he had written it the previous day, signing it and dating it with a
precise hour and date: “March 27, 2016, 10:25 P.M.” What followed was a
critical rumination that began with a comparison of contemporary
tourists and gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors. Then, quoting Obama’s
line about the common slave heritage of Cuba and the U.S., Fidel took
issue with this cozy rendition of a shared history: it was the
revolution that had done away with racial discrimination in Cuba and
fought against white minority regimes in African nations, he said, while
the U.S. had stood with the racists. He pondered what Obama thought
about that, and went on to question Obama’s appeal to “forget the past
and look to the future.” Fidel’s point was that the past was full of
American-inspired or -conducted acts of violence against Cuba and could
never be forgotten. “Let no one succumb to the illusion that the people
of this noble and self-abnegating nation will ever renounce the glory,
the rights, and the spiritual bounty won with its achievements in
education, the sciences, and culture,” he wrote. “We don’t need the
Empire to give us anything.”

So, what happens next? For now, things are carrying on as they have
been. Tourists from dozens of nations are crawling over every inch of
Havana, its hotels and casa particular pensiones are full, and American
cruise ships are due to begin docking in Havana in May for the first
time in five decades. The Hollywood action franchise “The Fast and the
Furious” is scheduled to begin filming its latest feature in Havana. An
all-new Musicabana festival will kick off in early May, bringing a host
of Cuban and American musicians together in a series of big public
concerts. At around the same time, Chanel is to hold a fashion show on
the legendary Malecón esplanade. Before that, though, in mid-April, is
Cuba’s seventh Communist Party congress, a hallmark event for the
island’s socialist stalwarts. There, any differences of opinion about
the direction of la coyuntura, as the present moment of change and
reform is euphemistically described, will likely become clearer.

With Obama’s visit, the United States played its maximum hand for the
moment, and it played it well. The most prudent move for the Americans
now, in light of the reaction by Fidel and the Cuban hard-liners, is
probably to stand back and watch and listen and make an effort to
demonstrate that the words in President Obama’s speech that day in
Havana’s Gran Teatro were sincere, especially when he said, switching
pointedly into Spanish, “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos
del pueblo cubano”—“the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban
people.”

Source: Cuba After Obama Left – The New Yorker –
www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/cuba-after-obama-left

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