Obama's Not-so-Excellent Adventure in Cuba

Wednesday, March 30, 2016
By Alfredo Estrada in The Hill:

Obama's not-so-excellent adventure in Cuba

While the breathless cadre of journalists that accompanied President Obama to Cuba dubbed the trip as "historic," it was soon lost in the subsequent media mash-up of Trump, terrorism and tango.

But a few indelible images of the president remain: holding a umbrella as he toured Old Havana in the rain, sparring with Cuban President Raúl Castro at an awkward press conference, and attending a baseball game in shirtsleeves and sunglasses. It was a command performance in the twilight zone of his administration, turning a lame duck into a graceful swan.

Many Cuban-Americans such as myself, who support better relations with the island, objected to the timing of the visit. Obama had drawn yet another red line (not in the sand, but the surf) promising to visit Cuba only if the human rights situation improved. "If we're going backwards," Obama said in 2014, "there's not much reason for me to be there. I'm not interested in validating the status quo."

Yet, as has been well-documented, persecution of political dissidents has increased markedly in the past year. According to The Washington Post, there were 526 arrests in the two weeks before the trip. Cubans are fleeing the island in record numbers, often by way of Mexico.

Despite this, Obama doubled down, bringing along not just a seemingly dazed first lady but also his daughters and mother-in-law, turning a state visit into spring break. But did it accomplish anything other than a few selfies for Malia and Sasha? What will be the impact of the trip?

Visitors to Cuba, beginning with Christopher Columbus, who described it as the most beautiful place "human eyes had ever seen," usually find what they want to find. In this case, the media found the "unspoiled" Havana of vintage cars, crumbling colonial buildings and deserted streets, with somehow festive Cubanos grinning like slaves on the plantation in "Gone with the Wind." Just perfect for a boho, politically correct vacation like the Obamas themselves took.

And now that Starwood has obtained a license to manage the Hotel Inglaterra (where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once stayed) tourists will be able to get room service, movies and Wi-Fi.

But with his legacy in mind, Obama was looking for something else to prop up his dramatic opening to Cuba, which seemed to have fizzled. While relations have been "normalized," the embargo remains. It's now somewhat easier for Americans to visit, but the travel ban is still in place. And while companies like Starwood are eager to do business in Cuba, ordinary Cubans earn an average monthly salary of $20.

Castro failed to greet the president at José Martí International Airport upon his arrival, a slap in the face. The reason might have been Obama's insistence on meeting with dissidents. The tension was evident at a press conference, where Obama egged on Castro to take questions from reporters. But Castro, who survived his share of ambushes in the Sierra Maestra, won the encounter by literally twisting Obama's arm and holding it up in victory. Obama let his hand go limp so as not to salute, but his smile remained painfully frozen. Where's the Secret Service when you need them?

Obama's only concession to Cuban-Americans was not meeting with Raul's older brother, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, though he told ABC News that he would be willing to do so if Fidel's health permitted it.

But he found time to appear on Cuban television with the comedian "Pánfilo," learning to play dominoes and joking about "The Beast," the armored limo that took him around Havana.

The dissidents that attended the much-anticipated meeting at the American embassy included Berta Soler, head of the "Ladies in White" group (whose members were roughed up and arrested just hours before Obama arrived in Cuba) and José Daniel Ferrer of the Cuban Patriotic Union, who had been recently detained as well. Obama offered them little other than praise for their "courage," and it remains to be seen what consequences will befall them in the days to come.

The grand finale was a speech by Obama at Havana's Gran Teatro, in which he declared, "I am here to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people." Obama combined personal reminiscencess with references to Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Robinson, whose widow was in the audience, and shout-outs to fledgling Cuban entrepreneurs like barber Papito Valladares. He encouraged Cubans to have "hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country."

Hope and change, huh? It was classic Obama, long on poetic inspiration but short on practical solutions.

Nonetheless, the speech was well-received by the same journalists who seemingly spent the entire trip riding 1959 Cadillacs along the Malecón. But it was also televised throughout the island, and what Cubans saw was something quite different.

They saw an American president trading high-fives with Raúl Castro, one of the most discredited and dismal despots ever to grace the world stage. Obama sounded like the Havana Chamber of Commerce, touting the achievements of the Revolution in healthcare and education, and urging American businesses and tourists to come on down.

Obama did precisely what he vowed not to do, validating the status quo. He didn't challenge Raul to "tear down the wall," as did President Reagan did Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a generation ago in Germany, but rather encouraged Cubans to hang in there and be cool.

Cubans are a proud people and don't like to be patronized. They've heard that message before — from the pope, from other visitors, from the media. They don't need encouragement, but rather freedom. And shortly after his speech preaching the virtues of democracy, Obama attended an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, and did the wave with Raúl Castro, the very man responsible for denying Cuba democracy for over half a century.

Obama's excellent adventure in Cuba received no mention on the Sunday political shows just a few days leter. The island is once more on the back burner, and will remain there until after the election, when a volatile world and other priorities will confront Obama's successor. A Republican president would undo what progress has been made, and even with a Democrat in the White House, the embargo will not be lifted by a recalcitrant Congress. So we're back where we started.

And as reported by Fusion, just an hour after Obama finished his speech, a group of dissidents was beaten up and arrested, a block away from the theater.

Estrada was born in Cuba and graduated from Harvard University before practicing law and founding HISPANIC Magazine.