Ivan Garcia, Havana, 24 March 2016 — On any given day, getting to the residence of the press attaché for the United States public affairs office in Cuba, located at 7th Avenue and 24th Street in the Havana suburb of Miramar, never takes more than twenty minutes by taxi from the center of Havana.
But Obama’s visit had left the capital in chaos. Dozens of streets had been closed and police roadblocks set up in areas where the presidential limousine, known as “The Beast,” and its entourage were to pass.
Sometime after 9:30 in the morning four independent Cuban journalists — Yoani Sanchez, Augusto Cesar San Martin, Ignacio Gonzalez and I — arrived at the residence of an American official. After a short briefing, we were driven to the US embassy, a stone’s throw from the Malecon.
Groups of people holding the Stars and Stripes surrounded the embassy, offering statements to the foreign press while waiting to see Cadillac One pass.
As soon as the president entered the diplomatic mission, a swarm of journalists began trying to position themselves in strategic spots. For five minutes reporters were allowed to take photos and videos before Obama went to meet with various opposition figures.
We, the four independent journalists, were led into a marble colored room with a photo of the Capitol in Washington. Every seat at the table had a bottle of mineral water and a card with a journalist’s name on it.
Ben Rhodes arrived twenty minutes later. He was wearing a white striped shirt, red tie and a black jacket. He looked tired. After a brief introduction, he answered two questions from each journalist.
Yoani Sanchez, director of 14ymedio asked him about the internet and the importance of the VII Cuban Communist Party Congress, scheduled to take place next month, which could resolve the island’s political future.
Rhodes gave an overview of the options which different leading internet companies have offered their Cuban counterpart.
“The Cuban government is probably feeling distrustful. But President Obama’s trade packages will allow US companies like Google to invest in the island. And, yes, we will be following what happens at the Communist Party Congress with interest,” he added.
Augusto Cesar San Martin, a reporter for Cubanet, noted that, in spite of the modest reforms implemented by General Raul Castro, 40,000 Cubans had left the country over concerns that the Cuban Adjustment Act would be repealed.
Rhodes insisted that the Obama administration was not thinking about repealing it. “Though it is possible that a future Congress might make modifications,” he added.
“The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” I, the reporter for Marti Noticas, observed. “After a fifteen months and little progress, the average Cuban feels deceived. There are more headlines and smoke signals than real achievements.”
Rhodes said he felt optimistic. “Important economic and political changes will come. This new policy is intended to empower the Cuban people. It will not be an easy road. These are not short-term policies,” he replied.
Ignacio, a video producer, asked about the embargo, though Rhodes offered nothing new in his response to this or other issues. His statements were in line with those made at meetings in Miami with members of the exile and dissident communities, and during his meeting with Cuban government journalists at Havana’s Hotel Parque Central.
The most interesting event took place in the embassy’s north wing, where Obama met with thirteen representatives from the opposition. In attendance were Manuel Cuesta Morua, Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler, Jose Daniel Ferrer, Guillermo Farinas, Laritza Diversent, Dagoberto Valdes, Miriam Celaya, Elizardo Sanchez, Yunier Angel Remon, Juana Mora, Nelson Alvarez and Miriam Leiva.
Just after 1 P.M. The Beast hurriedly left for Cerro Stadium, where President Obama was present for the first two innings of the game between Tampa Bay and a Cuban national team.
Outside the embassy, neighbors asked who was leaving the building. Since there was no official press coverage of Obama’s meeting with dissidents, a man calling himself Calixto wanted to know who was at the meeting and what they had talked about.
The roles have been reversed. Average Cubans are now interviewing foreign and independent journalists. They are eager for information, perhaps even for an exclusive.
Now it is the birds who are firing at the shotgun.*
Translator’s note: A Spanish language expression meaning that normal roles have been reversed, such as when a subordinate tells someone in higher authority what to do.