Obama’s Havana moment

Weekend Read: The US president’s historic visit to Cuba this week was a victory lap for his doctrine of diplomacy. But it's one of Obama’s few foreign-policy success stories


Niurka Céspedes walks along San Juan de Dios Street in Old Havana with a few groceries. She spends her days minding her blind 76-year-old mother, who is in ill health; she has had four heart attacks.

Céspedes’s two sisters left Cuba for the United States 14 years ago, and she and her mother haven’t seen them since. They talk every day online, but Céspedes worries that her sisters will never see their mother again. “They left because they didn’t agree with the system,” she says on the second day of Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting US president for almost 90 years.

Last Sunday Obama flew over the 145km Florida Straits, which separate the once bitter cold-war rivals. It is 15 months since the capitalist democracy and the communist island state agreed to bury a half-century-old hatchet and re-establish diplomatic and economic ties.

Céspedes admires Obama, “how human he is, watching what he is trying to do, not only to help Cubans but build relations,” she says. “It is taking a lot of time. No other president has done this.”

She hopes her sisters can come home soon and help out with their mother. “I am the only one looking after her.”

Shoilen Alfonso Rodriguez carries fresh bread rolls home from a local bakery for breakfast. The 19-year-old, whose hair is immaculately braided, is studying hairdressing. She would also like to learn French, German and English. “I would like if there were more hairdressing schools and more language schools, and somewhere to work properly,” she says.

She has an aunt in Canada and would love at some point, “like everybody else here, to get to travel to other countries”.

The needs and wants of the Cuban people are simple: cheaper and more plentiful food, more opportunities to work and travel, and a higher quality of living than they have been used to.

For many the root of all Cuba’s ills is the trade embargo the US imposed after Fidel Castro led the island’s revolution to communism, although Cubans know that Obama needs congressional Republicans to lift it.

When the president addressed the Cuban people directly this week, in a speech at the Gran Teatro de la Habana that was televised live in Cuba, he reminded them that “as president of the United States I’ve called on our Congress to lift the embargo”. The statement drew one of the loudest rounds of applause of the president’s three-day trip.

Personal pride

White House

Images of Obama and his staff looking out of Air Force One as the aircraft approached Havana showed his personal pride in the moment. Other images, of the president’s plane descending towards José Martí International Airport, over battered 1950s Buicks and Chevrolets, captured the essence of the trip: the old way was not working and it was time to start a new journey.

Those latter images tell the story of Cuba’s past and possibly its future: battered American-made relics of a bygone, pre-revolution era of prosperity sitting beneath the plane of a president bringing a message of change, and the potential for a return to prosperity.

There was a feel of valedictory celebration around the US delegation during this week’s visit, a victory lap for one of the landmark foreign-policy achievements of Obama’s presidency in his final year in office.

Susan Rice, his national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, his deputy national-security adviser and chief negotiator behind the rapprochement with Cuba, and other aides mingled with the travelling White House press corps and chatted over mojitos about the historic nature of the trip and how it came about.

On Obama’s foreign-policy front there is little else to drink to. As Tuesday’s attack in Brussels illustrated, Islamic State militants still pose a grave threat in Europe despite US bombardment in Iraq and Syria.

The nuclear deal with Iran, a country the US has designated a state sponsor of terrorism, is so provisional and fraught with risk to Obama’s legacy that there is unlikely to be a photograph of Air Force One descending over the rooftops of Tehran any time soon.

The expansionism of Russia in eastern Europe and the southern Caucuses, and of China in the Far East, alongside the chaos of Syria and regional conflict in the Middle East, makes Cuba the biggest foreign-policy moment of Obama’s lame-duck final year.

Ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal with 12 Pacific-rim countries, would be another flagship achievement for the 44th US president, but the unpopularity of trade deals among grassroots Democrats and Republicans, who view them as American job-killers, means this will be one accomplishment that Hillary Clinton will not want Obama to trumpet as she campaigns to succeed him in the White House.

Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, says that the Cuba rapprochement, like Bill Clinton’s encouragement of the Northern Ireland peace process, was emblematic of the administration’s approach to foreign policy. The Obama doctrine of nonthreatening, diplomatic engagement is best seen at work in the embrace of an old adversary off the southern tip of Florida.

“Obama and his team see it as a vindication of his strategy of engagement,” says Tom Wright, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “They clearly enjoyed the trip. It follows through on his campaign promise for a new era of diplomacy.”

The Democrat Pat Leahy, the longest-serving US senator, standing in Havana’s Gran Teatro before the president’s keynote speech, recalls accompanying Clinton on his historic 1995 trip to Belfast as he spoke about Obama’s “significant” achievement in Cuba. “There was no justification for us treating Cuba as if it were some terrible enemy to fear. Things aren’t going to be perfect immediately, but they are going to be better.”

The far-from-perfect relationship was visible this week when Obama and Raul Castro disagreed publicly at the press conference after the first official talks between the countries for decades, at Havana’s Revolutionary Palace on Monday.

In addition to calling for the end of the blockade, as the embargo is known by the Cuban people, and the return of the “illegally occupied” territory of Guantánamo, in southeastern Cuba, the two leaders disagreed on democracy and human rights.

Castro accused the US of double standards in criticising Cuba’s record on human rights and suppression of democracy, saying it was inconceivable that the US government did not defend individual rights to education, healthcare, social security, food and equal pay.

The 84-year-old leader grew testy in response to a reporter’s question about why the regime wouldn’t release political prisoners. “What political prisoners?” he asked, reflecting the Thatcher-like view that dissidents are detained over what the Castro regime sees as criminal offences rather than political actions.

The gulf between the countries was most evident in the discomfort shown by Castro in being questioned openly by the media and the strong rhetoric that the Cubans are refusing to let go of. Castro admitted that there were some things the two nations will never agree on.

Good record

“I think they are having trouble letting go. Some of them are fearful of what comes next,” says Richard Feinberg, a former White House adviser to Clinton on Cuba and Latin America policy.

He is sitting in the lobby of a Havana hotel, smoking a Cuban cigar.

“The Cubans have been very successful in the sense that they have been in power for 57 years. That is a pretty damn good record. The integral part of their national-security paradigm was to maintain hostile relations with the imperial aggressor. Obama has outstretched his hand; some in the Cuban government are hesitant to grasp it.”

One reason for the shift in policy towards Havana was to deepen US ties with Central and South American countries, which have for years blamed their northern neighbours for their problems.

“It was necessary because Latin America demanded it and the old relationship had caused tensions with Latin America,” says Feinberg. “It was outmoded, out of date and time for an update.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s negotiator with Cuba, told reporters in Havana on Monday night that the Obama administration through the Cuba deal was “clearing the air of history, which is very polluted air in different parts of the hemisphere, and working together to solve problems”.

“It has changed the conversation,” he said, pointing to the US’s greater involvement in peace talks taking place in Havana between the Colombian government and the Farc left-wing guerrilla rebels, and the newly elected pro-American government of Mauricio Macri, in Argentina, after 14 years of governments opposed to Washington.

Argentina was Obama’s second stop of his spring-break trip; he danced the tango after a state dinner there, two days after accompanying Castro to a baseball game in Havana between the Cuban national team and Tampa Bay Rays, visiting from Florida.

Baseball and tango diplomacy will help soften long-existing tensions with the Cubans and Argentines. “It is one of his major achievements – certainly in our hemisphere one of his most important achievements,” Dick Durbin, the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, says at the Gran Teatro. “This is not just a question of the US and Cuban relationship, but our foreign policy for 50 years has really created a burden for the US in dealing with Central and South America.

“We were discredited, because most of them rejected our embargo and trade and travel restrictions, and now that the president is moving in a new direction it is opening up dialogue with Central and South America on many other issues.”

After a half-century of stop-starts in economic prosperity, visible in the old American and Russian cars chugging along the streets of Havana, ordinary Cubans remain sceptical of what might happen next.

Felipe Hernandez Serrano, an 81-year-old standing next to Santa Rita Park last Sunday, to protest at the anti-Castro demonstrators across the road, is happy that Obama came to Cuba but wishes that he had more time to have an effect.

“It is a shame that Obama is in his last period, because it is a short time, and he may not be able to do everything he is fighting for, particularly the big things,” he says. “We will have to wait and see.”

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