The Obama Revolution and the Average Cuban / Iván García

Cubans waiting for Obama to pass.
Cubans waiting for Obama to pass.

Ivan Garcia, 9 April 2016 — Quiet has returned to the streets of Carraguao, a neighborhood in the suburb of Cerro. There are no more patrol cars, no local police or beefy foreigners who look like U.S Secret Service agents walking around and checking everything out. But two days after it took place, Berta — a fifty-six-year-old housewife — remembers every detail of Barack Obama’s visit to the Latin American Stadium here.

“When The Beast (the presidential limousine) drove by, the the excitement was tremendous,” she says. “People were shooting videos on their cell phones and chanting ’Obama, Obama.’ A pothole on my street corner that had been there for twenty-five years was patched for the president’s visit as if by magic. They painted all the houses and fixed all the streets. People now call him ’Representative Obama.’ In one week he solved more problems than our local representative, a dim-wit who can’t solve anything.”

Obdulio, a sixty-six-year-old retiree has lived his entire life in a narrow, roofless building a stone’s throw from the stadium. “For those few days all business stopped,” he says. “The guys who sell beef, take lottery bets and hawk detergent and soap stolen from Sabates were frozen in place. Everyone was out on the street. If they held elections here, most people would vote for Obama. The negro has it all: charm, charisma, simplicity. He is one hell of a president.”

As always happens in Cuba, rumors and fantasies fuse with reality. Almost everyone you meet will tell you he or she saw Cadillac One from a few feet away.

The residents of Carraguao closely followed Obama’s speech. “The guy spoke in stereo. No one has ever told Raul Castro to his face that what this country needs is a real democracy, not a fake one,” says Joel, a private-sector worker.

A little more than two weeks since Obama’s visit, people on buses, at transit stops and in lines at government offices are still talking about their impressions and discussing the impact of his two-and-a-half day stay in Havana.

Distributors of the paquete — the weekly packet, a semi-clandestine compendium of TV serials, soap operas, sports shows and films on sale for fifty Cuban pesos — have included homemade videos filmed during the tour Obama and his wife took through the oldest part of the city and to the Cuban Art Factory cultural center in Vedado to view a project by the musician X Alfonso.

These videos have gone viral. While waiting for her daughter to finish her English class at a private academy in Havana’s La Vibora district, Yanaida recalls how for several days, while waiting in line to buy bread, all anyone could talk about was Hurricane Obama.

“The man hit a homerun. He seduced almost everyone. It shows how well-prepared he was. People can’t help comparing him to the old farts we have, who don’t know how to give a decent speech and only repeat slogans. They promise a lot but never fulfill their promises,” says Yanaida.

Several Havana residents interviewed by Diario de las Americas were harshly critical of Fidel Castro’s editorial entitled “Brother Obama.” Many question whether the elder Castro actually wrote the article.

“No one has seen him speak in public for years. Fidel is completely out of it. An uncle of mine says they constantly have to change his diapers, the disposable kind they put on elderly people. What is going on is that neither he nor his brother’s government likes the spontaneous welcome Obama got and are starting to make trouble,” says Juan Carlos, a taxi driver.

YouTube videos showing Cubans criticizing the Castros and a letter by the musician Manolin el Medico de la Salsa (Manolin, the Doctor of Salsa)* are in wide circulation via flash drive along the width and breadth of the island.

“Obama opened a lot of eyes in Cuba. What with food shortages and scarcities, people never thought much about freedom of expression, going on strike or forming political parties. But at least I am now starting to get it, that this is a human rights issue beyond just health and education,” says a shopkeeper.

Sometimes a small spark can cause to a major short-circuit. In 1989 a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev to Berlin and the yearning of East Germans to leap over the wall ruptured the communist dike.

On December 17 (coincidentally the same date the restoration of US-Cuban relations was announced), 2010 twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a public square in Tunis, fed up with the corruption and excessive fines of the Ben Ali regime. His death ignited protests throughout the Middle East that marked the beginning of the Arab Spring, which the region’s monarchies and military governments were no longer able to contain.

John F. Kennedy’s legendary speech on the western side of the Berlin Wall in 1961 or Ronald Reagan’s in Moscow in the 1980s were seminal events for a countless number of citizens from these countries.

Obama’s speech in Havana has left its mark on many Cubans. A revolution is not always carried out with arms.

Ivan Garcia

 Diario de las Americas, April 9, 2016

*Translator’s note: A reference to Manuel “Manolin” Gonzalez Hernandez, formerly a young physician and now leader of highly successful timba/salsa band, whose criticisms of social conditions in his community have led to numerous run-ins with the Cuban government. The singer and song writer posted an open and very blunt letter to Fidel Castro on his Facebook page in response to an article by the former Cuban leader that was critical of Obama’s visit.