Cuba 2016: The Visit of Barack Obama and Death of Fidel Castro / Iván García

Watching Obama on TV in Havana. Getty Images, taken from the BBC.

Ivan Garcia, 2 January 2017 — A spring rainstorm with light gusts of wind fell over metropolitan Havana on Sunday, March 20th, when at 4:30 PM Air Force One landed at the first terminal of the José Martí International Airport carrying President Barack Obama to one of the final redoubts of communism in the world.

While a Secret Service agent opened Obama’s umbrella at the foot of the airplane stairs as he greeted Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, two hours earlier in Miramar, west of Havana, State security agents had fiercely repressed a group of forty women and two dozen men who were demanding democracy and freedom for political prisoners.

The dissident movement Ladies in White was instrumental in the olive-green autocracy’s calculated political reforms before the international gallery.

Raúl Castro, hand-picked for the presidency in the summer of 2006 by his brother Fidel, took the brunt of the escalating violence, and in three way negotiations with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and the National Catholic Church in 2010, he freed 75 dissidents and sent the majority into exile.

Castro II changed the rules of the game. The repressive modus operandi of the regime began using brief detentions and returned, in a worrisome way, to beatings, death threats, and verbal attacks on its opposition.

The afternoon that The Beast rolled into Old Havana, where Obama ate dinner with his family in a private restaurant, the regime sent a message back to Washington: the reforms — if they can be called reforms — would be made at the convenience of the Palace of the Revolution, not the White House.

On December 17, 2014, Raúl Castro and Barack Obama decided to reestablish diplomatic relations and to turn around the anachronistic policies of the Cold War.

The strategy of Obama proved indecipherable to the Taliban of Castroism. He did not threaten to deploy gunboats nor subvert the state of affairs.

In his memorable speech at the Grand Theater of Havana on the 22nd of March, he simply offered things that the majority of Cubans desire, and of course did not renounce the doctrines that sustain American democracy, of supporting private businesses and political rights.

Obama said what he thought looking into the eyes of Raúl Castro, squatted in an armchair on the second balcony of the theater and surrounded by the military junta that has administered Cuba for almost 60 years.

The 48 hours of his visit shook Havana. Neither the strong security measures nor the Communist Party’s strategy for minimizing the impact of Obama’s speech prevented the spontaneous reception of the people of Havana that greeted the president wherever Cadillac One passed.

But official reactions to the visit were not long in coming. Fidel Castro, retired from power, sick and waiting for death in his residential complex of Punto Cero, opined that Obama’s outstretched hand was poisoned candy.

The propaganda machinery of the regime began to corrode, and some signs of economic backlash against intermediaries and private sellers of agriculture products, which began in early January, were reinforced in the following months.

Obama’s visit entrenched the hard-core of the island’s totalitarianism. The gang closed ranks, they returned to the spent Soviet language, and began to render to Castro I a cult of personality modeled on a North Korean manual.

It was assumed that the arrival of the president to Havana would be the event of 2016 in Cuba, but at 10 PM on the night of November 25th, according to the government, Fidel Castro died.

His death was no surprise. With 90 years and various ailments, the death of the ex-guerilla was imminent. For better or for worse, he placed Cuba on the world political map, confronting it with strategies of subversion against the United States.

His revolution was more political than economic. He could never erect a robust economy, and the architecture and textile factories during his extensive rule, only produced things of shoddy and bad taste. Any reasonable person should analyze the benefits and prejudices of the regime of Fidel Castro. Sovereignty powered by cheap nationalism. Division of families. Polarization of society. Relentless with its enemies and local opposition.

Agriculture declined, he buried the sugar industry and it is difficult to find any economic, sports or social sector that has not gone downhill. There was no political honesty in recognizing his failures. On the contrary, the regime entrenched itself in what it knows best: odes, panegyrics and trying to enshrine its absurdities in gothic lettering.

And then, 2016 was the year of Raul Castro’s diplomatic apparatus, the most outstanding in his decade as president of the republic. In the last five years he has reaped success. The secret negotiations for the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba. The intermediation of peace in Colombia, with the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. The cancellation of financial debts and negotiation of a new deal with the Paris Club. And he even managed to blow up the Common Position of the European Union. Unobjectionable triumphs of Castro’s advisers in international relations.

But those same advisers misjudged their strategy against the United States. Like the American media and pollsters, they failed to discern the Donald Trump phenomenon. They may now regret that they have not made enough progress during Obama’s term.

Trump is unpredictable. He repeals the agreements reached with the United States saying he will make a better one. But something is clear to the regime. To negotiate benefits you have to make concessions. No more gifts.

In 2016 there was much more. Mick Jagger unfolded his unusual physical energy in a mega-concert, scenes of the movie Fast and Furious were filmed in Cuba, and almost every day a celebrity landed in Havana.

In May, Chanel offered a haute couture show in the Paseo del Prado in a country where the majority of inhabitants earn $25 a month and not everyone can see Chanel models in fashion magazines.

Cruises began arriving from Miami as did regular flights from the United States. There were more than 1,200 cultural and academic exchanges, and the visits by weighty figures of both governments have been numerous.

The meetings and negotiations have been constant; as constant as the repression. According to the National Commission of Human Rights and Reconciliation, in the month of November there were 359 arbitrary detentions of dissidents, activists, and independent journalists.

The détente is not about to land on the Cuban table. Markets continue to be out of stock, two meals a day is still a luxury, and one hour of surfing the internet is equivalent to the wages of a day and a half of work by a professional.

The year 2017 will be a key year. Barack Obama, the conciliator, will not be in the White House, and in Cuba the old leader Fidel Castro will not be there either.