Obama Invades Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

A Cuban family watching Obama’s speech during an entrepreneurs’ forum in Havana (21 March 2016)

Juan Juan Almeida, 28 March 2016 — I do not generally like rehashing old topics. It tends to squash conversation. But I am making an exception in this case because a critical reader, who in a confrontational tone accused me of being one of Castro’s spies, asked my opinion of President Barack Obama’s speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro Theater.

Time is a better and much wiser judge, and in politics everything is a production, like a Rolling Stone’s concert.

I will try to remain impartial. But for me the visit was an historic event. No sooner had Air Force One touched down in Havana than the topic was trending on all the social networks.

It was an outstanding speech: direct, clear and inspiring. He captivated us when he said, “ I can’t force you to agree, but you should know what I think. I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

He later sweetened the sentiment with classic and well-known references to Cuban culture like ropa vieja, Celia Cruz, exile and Our Lady of Charity.

Cubans like myself — those who were born and grew up with the revolution and long expected an invasion by strong, blond Americans in camouflage fatigues, brandishing guns in one hand — were amazed. I do not know if that is the right word. But within one minute of his reference to one of Jose Marti’s most beautiful and famous poems, “Cultivo una rosa blanca,” this skinny little guy — with charisma to spare — demolished the myth that for years had been fabricated, inculcated and exported by our leaders.

Obama seduced. He clearly scored with his visit to Havana but, like it or not, so did Raul Castro. A few days before the start of the VII Cuban Communist Party Conference on April 16 and months before his long anticipated retirement in February 2018, a U.S. president visited the island without Cuba’s leader having to make a single concession.

I understand that an abundance of passion can cloud one’s vision. We have imagined an oasis where there is only desert. This is called a mirage.

At no point did I see Raul Castro looking uncomfortable, as some of my countrymen have claimed.

I believe that his arrogant response to the requisite (and anticipated) question on political prisoners was a very bad move by the Cuban president to stall for time. But at this point in the tournament, even a few seconds count. His cynical closing shot — “give me the list and I will release them” — made it very clear that “on the plantation, he is in charge.”

Rather than an out-of-control dictator, what I saw was really an octogenarian clown with hearing problems. It was the same situation during Obama’s speech at the theater. Assuming they were following the rules of protocol, the president hosting the event would have known in advance what his guest would say.

A close friend of mine says his sources in Cuba have told him that the former commander-in-chief is upset with Raul over Obama’s visit. I don’t buy it. If the ex-omnipresent one is complaining, he must be because no one has changed his Pampers. This development is one he had long hoped for, especially after an unfortunate event during a visit to Europe for a funeral.

Acknowledged for his incomparable skill at managing crises, albeit immodestly, Fidel Castro would have used the attacks in Brussels to his advantage. To gain attention, he would have declared three days of mourning in solidarity with the Belgian victims, discredited Obama’s meeting with Cuban dissidents, suspended the baseball game with the American team when it looked like the Cubans would lose and stolen the show. In this way he would have diminished the significance of the president’s visit to “his island.”

“In politics, it is all about production values, like the Rolling Stone’s outdated concert.