I was in Cuba earlier this month, traveling with a group of students from Rice University. During my trip, I had the opportunity to talk to bus and taxi drivers, owners of casas particulares (Cuba’s version of a bed-and-breakfast), artists, students, waiters, working parents and various professionals. Some were strong believers in the revolution — hard-core Fidelistas — others were indifferent to the regime, and still others were impatiently waiting for the renewed relationship with the United States to bring about regime change. President Obama’s trip to Cuba was on my mind and I wondered how his visit would be received, and how he would engage the public. I needn’t have been concerned.
In his speech at the Gran Teatro on Tuesday, President Obama astutely combined high praise of the Cuban people with respectful criticism of the Cuban government. “El Cubano inventa del aire,” he said, complimenting the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans who innovate from air, from nothing. Indeed, Cuba’s innovative and highly educated labor force is the country’s greatest asset. Cubans have undoubtedly demonstrated remarkable ingenuity in the face of hardships arising from a decades-long U.S. trade embargo, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Cuban government’s economic policies.
As resourceful as the Cuban people are, however, their knowledge of the outside world is limited by media outlets controlled by the Cuban government. Television and radio stations are state-owned, as is its one newspaper — Granma, the name of the yacht Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries used to return to Cuba in 1956 for the purpose of overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. During my Cuba trip, I followed the news, and became interested in the complete lack of objectivity in the country’s reporting. My visit coincided with the third anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death, which was widely commemorated in Havana. The 8:00 p.m. newscasts and Granma both praised the deceased president and reported news about the evil proponents of capitalism and imperialism who run tireless campaigns against change-makers like Presidents Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. According to a March 4 article in Granma, the imperialists want to discredit other popular leaders like President Maduro of Venezuela, President Morales of Bolivia, and President Rousseff of Brazil. I also noticed a sharp bias toward socialism versus capitalism directed toward students, for instance in the 10th grade history textbooks belonging to a teenager in one of the families I stayed with.
A person may decide that Hugo Chávez was a great president, and that socialism is the best form of government. However, having the ability to compare and contrast different forms of government, and to openly debate conflicting ideas, is a luxury that is not extended to Cubans through its media. Granma’s opinion page seems unnecessary when the content of other sections of the newspaper has such a heavy editorial slant.
Despite decades of controlled information in Cuba, President Obama captivated many of the island’s residents by altering their perception of the U.S. as an overbearing power determined to change the island, by admitting the failure of U.S. policy toward their country, and by pointing out the challenges and frustrations of an imperfect U.S. democracy. It is through the space created by democracy, he stressed, that people can openly disagree and bring about change. A case in point was his personal story.
The year of the Cuban revolution, 1959, was the same year Obama’s Kenyan father moved to the United Sates. At the time, the president explained, it was illegal for his black father to marry his white mother in many states. Obama mentioned the important challenges the United States continues to have, with racial bias in its communities and justice system, and the legacy of slavery and segregation. Nevertheless, he observed that the open debates made possible in a democracy allow the U.S. to move forward, and get better. “The ideals that are the starting point for any revolution … find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy,” he said.
He furthered his point by noting that in the U.S. presidential campaign, “you had two Cuban-Americans in the Republican Party running against the legacy of a black man who was president, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959? That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.”
Obama acknowledged that a U.S. policy toward Cuba designed for the Cold War had no place in the 21st century, and called on the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo. He expressed his belief in universal rights such as equality before the law, the freedom to state one’s views and practice one’s faith without fear, and other rights that in a not-so-distant past led to the arrest of many Cubans on the island.
Change is a formidable thing, and U.S.-Cuba relations are certainly moving in the right direction. A small part of me is saddened, though, when I think of a potential negative consequence of sudden, widespread Internet access among Cuban youth. I talked to many young people during my trip this month and realized that young Cubans are ardent readers; their vocabulary and ability to clearly express complex ideas are impressive. For this generation, the worlds imagined by Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Marques, Ernest Hemingway and many contemporary Cuban and international writers are far more entertaining than the shows on state-controlled television stations. However, once the Internet becomes more widely available and accessible, I fear the younger generation’s passion for reading will be diluted, or substituted by a fascination with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
President Obama delivered to the youth of Cuba a message of hope, and trust in their potential. He encouraged them to decide what their future should look like, and work toward building it. A Cuban dissident once said that in order to influence a debate, one needs to be present. President Obama’s presence in Cuba — his humility and his respectful message carrying the right balance of criticism, praise and hope — hit the right note among a people that has long been wary of the U.S., and what they believe it represents. The president allayed apprehension about U.S. intent and, in so doing, marked a positive start to a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Erika de la Garza is the program director of the Latin America Initiative at the Baker Institute. Her chief areas of interest include U.S.-Latin American relations, emerging leadership, coalition building between public, private and civil society actors, and trade and business development in Latin America.
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