Obama's Cuban foray: 'Too much goodwill' to turn back the Cold War clock

A few clumsy moments aside, U.S. President Barack Obama's historic Cuba trip put an official end to 50 years of Cold War enmity. For hopeful Cubans in Havana, the presidential visit was a promising start to a better future.

There were a few clumsy moments, but Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba went off pretty much as planned

Bonding over baseball. The Obamas take in an exhibition game with Cuban President Raul Castro between the Cuban National team and the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday in Havana. (Jonathan Ernst /Reuters)

There were some clumsy moments in Havana.

A bizarre presidential handshake-turned-arm wave. A tweet that probably went mostly unread. A stumble over a question about Cuba's political prisoners.

Ask the Cubans what they thought of U.S. President Barack Obama's long-anticipated visit here, however, and it's clear none of that diplomatic discomfort mattered.

Not when this visit was so historic for them, particularly with their once-blockaded economy now looking like it may be on the cusp of so much new possibility.

"To me, this was the perfect visit," said Rosy Farines Rodriguez, a 37-year-old resident of Havana's Vedado neighbourhood who operates a kind of bed-and-breakfast out of her home.

"Obama, for me, he's going to make it better for Cuba. For Cuban people. For Cuban business. All my friends are very happy about this."

Forget all the diplomatic platitudes, Obama's three-day visit was about sowing change. Though whether those diplomatic seeds might blow away after his remarkable tour is hard to know.

Republicans in Congress, as well as those on the presidential campaign trail, have made it known they don't think much of this historic opening.

But before Air Force One departed Havana on Tuesday, the U.S. president made it clear he was leaving as an ally to a former Communist foe.

"I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas," Obama declared to a packed house at Havana's Gran Teatro, where Cuban President Raoul Castro applauded stoically from a balcony seat.

Average salary $20 a month

From the stage of the neo-baroque opera house, Obama espoused the possible benefits of introducing elements of a market economy to the Cuban people, as well as opening up travel.

The internet, he added, must become widely available "so that Cubans can connect to the wider world, and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history."

The U.S., he promised, will not stand in the way of Cuba's progress, but neither would it force an unwilling hand. "It's up to you," Obama said.

Barack Obama's historic speech in Cuba

7 years ago
Duration 5:30
'I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,' he says in first live speech by a sitting U.S. president to the Cuban people

In the Vedado district, Iyoana Carassa watched Obama's address on a boxy television at the government-run cafeteria where she works.

"God bless Obama," she said.

The 42-year-old waitress earns the equivalent of roughly 235 Cuban pesos, or $10 US, in a month. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month, according to Cuba's national stats office.

Earning a "good salary" seems unrealistic, Carassa says, but so, too, did the idea of an American president visiting Cuba not so long ago. Before Obama, it had been 88 years since the last sitting U.S. president came to this isolated Caribbean island.

Lift that embargo

Obama noted on Tuesday that he has already called on Congress to lift the 55-year trade embargo that has kept Cuba in a virtual time warp of run-down 1960s-era cars and dilapidated colonial architecture.

Carassa understands this is part of what gives Cuba some of its unique, vintage charm, or at least the veneer of it. But she would trade it for something new.

"Opportunities," she said. "Internet. Jobs. Salaries. We need this."

Bruno Bel Monte, part of an emerging Cuban class of small-business owners, watched Obama's address from his cigar-themed restaurant.

"It was expected, this speech, to say what's going to happen from now on," the 33-year-old said.

"But the real changes? It depends on the governments of the two countries of Castro and Obama."

Bel Monte remains hopeful. Three years ago, the Cuban people began noticing positive changes in the country, he said, after Castro made a series of economic reforms that allowed citizens to try their hand at private enterprise, so long as they adhered to a government-approved list of 200 categories of licensed businesses.

"There are a lot of possibilities the Cuban people have in this moment they didn't have in the past," Bel Monte said, giving his own restaurant as an example.

Too much hope to turn back

Events have moved quickly since Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama and Castro announced they were moving towards normalizing relations between their two countries.

To see the Cuban and American presidents sitting side by side on Tuesday, languidly taking in a Cuba-versus-Tampa Bay ballgame together in casual spring attire, would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, says Jorge Duany, with the Miami-based Cuban Research Centre.

"That kind of cordial relationship with Raul Castro, the fact that he attended the game today, it seemed to be a very positive step," Duany said.

Obama's private meeting with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy was also successful and unimpeded.

His question-and-answer forum with entrepreneurs on Monday inspired Rodriguez, the bed-and-breakfast operator in Vedado, to learn more about an app for renting out homestays that she heard about while watching the conference.

"What is AirBnB?" the 37-year-old asked. "How can I set one up?"

"What's AirBnB?" asks Rosy Farines Rodriguez, who runs a bed and breakfast-style operation from her home in Havana. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Awkward moments occurred as well. Castro's decision to hoist Obama's arm and wave it during a photo-op, for instance. And the empty, security-cleared streets in Old Havana that greeted him on a rainy day.

There was also Obama's first tweet upon landing in Havana, a good-natured greeting in Spanish: "¡Hola desde Cuba!" he wrote — but a message that only five per cent of the Cuban population with internet access might have seen.

And then there was Castro's stumbling over a Cuban-American journalist's blunt question about political prisoners.

"Give me a list and I will release them immediately," Castro challenged. "Give me a name or names."

Even so, the breakthrough was that Castro answered a journalist's question at all, said Jose Gabilondo, a Cuba expert and law professor with the Florida International University.

"There's no such thing as a wrong question coming from a reporter, and if anything, that was a very positive exchange because it's putting the Cuban government on notice," he said.

"They're going to have to contend with this kind of criticism from the international press" once relations are normalized.

One of the more awkward encounters: a proffered handshake turned arm wave between Obama and Castro. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Gabilondo believes the impact of Obama's Cuba visit will last past his presidency. With relations moving forward in such a positive way, it will be increasingly difficult to defend the embargo.

"It doesn't even matter who's in the White House next," he says. "Even if it's the Republicans, they won't be able to roll back some of these changes. There are too many private interests that have been activated. Too much goodwill that's been built."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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