Havana: Waiting for Air Force One / Iván García

Photo: Taken from Soda Head
Photo: Taken from Soda Head

Ivan Garcia, 22 February 2016  — If Barack Obama’s plan was to enhance the US influence in Cuba, he has made some gains. If his plan involves the use of a stealthy Trojan horse to bring in the internet, commerce and dollars to overturn the government of the Castro brothers and open doors to democracy, he will have to wait some time to see if his strategy was effective.

The military dictatorship and several thousands of its followers look upon the imperialist policies of the north with disgust, though they accept and even applaud similar strategies carried out by Russia as well as the nuclear deliria of a hooligan state like North Korea.

People — those who have one hot meal a day and for whom breakfast is only coffee — often have an idyllic vision of the neighbor to the north. There are many among them who insist Fidel Castro’s speeches condemning Yankee imperialism have had a boomerang effect. But the affection Cubans feel towards Americans goes way back.

Though there were those like Jose Marti, who warned of the danger of nascent imperialism, Cuban independence leaders almost without exception idolized the American revolution as a social and economic model.

The considerable influence of the White House — with its meddlesome and clumsy policies — during the years of the Cuban republic was not enough to erode the favorable opinion of a majority of the public towards the United States.

In January 1959, 70% of large estates, sugar mills and small businesses were locally owned. The island imported the latest American technological innovations almost as soon as they left the testing lab, including automobiles and color televisions. It even experienced a facsimile of satellite transmission when the Major League World series was broadcast with the aid of a commercial airliner.

Cuba was not a province of the United States, as the regime would have us believe. The value of the peso, the national currency, was at parity with the dollar and Havana was among the most modern and efficient cities in Latin American. Let me not dwell on the disaster wrought on the economy by the brothers Castro.

The breakdown and chaos also impacted social, aesthetic and ideological spheres. The Castro regime switched sides and became an important player in the Cold War, acting as a communist ally.

Cuba served as a training base for Latin American guerrillas and Fidel Castro intervened in civil wars in Angola and Ethiopia. He has the undeniable distinction of having won over intellectuals and colonized countries in the region without firing a shot.

It is unprecedented in world history for a nation with no navy, an army in shambles and a third the inhabitants and gross domestic product of Venezuela, to play a key role in that country’s affairs. Or to be a significant player in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Or to act as a key negotiator in ending a war that has gone on for more than half a century in Colombia.

The Cuban revolution has always been always more about politics than economics. The nation’s streets, infrastructure and buildings are literally in ruins but on the international stage Raul Castro enjoys success after success.

Without offering anything in exchange, Castro II has managed to get western nations to overlook a large portion of Cuba’s foreign debt by promising future business opportunities while foregoing democratic change.

The icing on the cake came on 17 December 2014 after a year and a half of secret negotiations. One can disagree with his political beliefs but Obama is right when he says that, after fifty years, US policy towards Cuba has failed.

Although some dissidents, the government and many ordinary Cubans either blame or thank the White House for the new scenario, the national debate should be focused on other things.

The country’s economic, social and political disasters are issues for Cubans. The United States is looking out for its own interests. It is up to Cubans to identify and resolve our own problems. But I understand why a segment of the dissident community feels deceived and disillusioned and our citizens are packing their bags, ready to emigrate.

Cuba’s press and political system are not designed to accommodate conflicting opinions. The adversary is not America, much less Obama. The enemy is the pathological entrenchment of the Cuban government towards its people.

It is good that economic doors are being opened and I hope Obama lifts the embargo. But I have a sense that neither one nor the other will improve the quality of life or democratize Cuban society.

The news of Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 21 and 22 sparked conflicting views, ranging from magical realist thinking and exaggerated expectation to sober analysis.

The visit is only a month away but, in discussions on the street, opinions seem to have more to do with folklore rather than its historical significance. Many Cubans speak of Obama with familiarity, as though he were someone from the neighborhood.

Now, especially in Havana, you see more American flags on balconies and antiquated taxis than ever before. Men and women of all ages are wearing clothes with the stars and stripes. And doctored photos of Obama smoking a Cuban cigar and sporting a khaki baseball cap are for sale.

People are not expecting miracles and many imagine a welcoming ceremony befitting a rock star. Perhaps this way of looking at things is positive in a world where politicians live in another dimension. But the banality that often generates headlines will not be the master key that unlocks the Cuban maze.

For young people the novelty will be watching the presidential limousine, known as The Beast, making its way through the streets of Havana and Secret Service agents running alongside the motorcade in their usual display.

It is what they have seen in Hollywood movies. To them Obama’s sensible proposals are background noise. Dissidents see it very differently. In Cuba there is an Obama for everyone.

In spite of their differing opinions, Cubans are counting the days until they can  watch newscasts of Air Force One landing in Havana.

Ivan Garcia

 Originally published in Diario de las Americas, February 22, 2016