Welcome, Mr. Kerry / Ivan Garcia

Kerry-paseando-por-La-Habana-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 15 August 2015 — In Luis García Berlanga’s impressive 1953 film, Welcome Mr. Marshall, the mayor, priest and townspeople of Villar del Río await the visit of George Marshall, the American secretary of state from 1947 to 1949. In the film, Marshall is believed to be carrying in his briefcase a blank check, drawn on funds from his famous plan, to promote the recovery of dictator Francisco Franco’s Spain. On August 14, 2015, at eight-thirty in the morning, John Forbes Kerry, the man from Obama’s team who is responsible for conducting US foreign policy, landed at José Martí Airport in Havana.

It is yet to be seen what Kerry is carrying in his suitcase. It is very likely he will not be coming to Havana just to hoist the Stars and Stripes, have a few of mojitos and recite the usual mechanical speeches and diplomatic niceties so common in modern politics.

According to some diplomatic sources, Kerry will be toting his verbal shotgun, loaded with subtle rebukes to violations of human rights and political freedoms by the Castro brothers’ military dictatorship.

Of course, he will also be selling promises: visions that a market economy and financial capital will bring two hot meals a day and a better quality of life.

It is suspected that Kerry will further deflate the US economic and financial embargo with a package of new proposals. To make up for brushing off dissidents and independent journalists, he will host an afternoon event for a dozen or so opposition figures.

The move leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some in the dissident community. Obviously, they do not expect Mr. Kerry treat them like royalty. His visit is governmental in nature and the Cuban opposition, repressed and harassed, is a loose bundle of associations and political parties without a large base of supporters.

But at the same time they do not want to just have a chat in the kitchen. This somewhat reflects the feelings of Antonio Rodiles and Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, who declined his invitation.

“I do not believe just having a polite conversation is enough to address the serious and responsible debate we are seeking. That is why Berta and I have decided to decline the US embassy’s invitation,” said Rodiles said in a telephone interview.

Other invitees, including Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Miriam Leiva, will attend. It will be seventy years since Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Franklin Roosevelt’s last foreign secretary, visited Havana in the spring of 1945 and the first visit by an American political heavyweight to the communist island.

Since the December 17 thaw, when both nations climbed out of their Cold War trenches, congressional representatives, senators and members of the American media jet set have been given tours of Havana.

The presence of academics, politicians and journalists — interested in analyzing who the winners and losers are in the new diplomatic deal, or in predicting whether the Obama doctrine’s new formula can establish democracy in Cuba through investment, tourism, and mutual respect — have relegated the voice of the street to the background.

As usual, Afro-Cubans are the big losers in this new environment, though not through any fault of the White House. The political wariness of President Raul Castro, who after eight months still has not implemented a policy to benefit entrepreneurs or create economic opportunities, has shifted the mood from anticipation to resignation.

The regime knows that it is entering uncharted territory. Reinventing Marxist socialism after fifty-six years of economic disaster while running the country as though it were a military barracks is no small thing.

One misstep and the fragile house of cards collapses. The general’s government knows this, so it plays defense and lowers the shade. What is at stake is the continuity of the Castro system and its grip on power.

To contain the erosion of five and half decades of economic follies, it needs dollars and a legion of Yankee businessmen who can bring with them a new Marshall plan. But in moderation.

This is why official media outlets, circumspect and dull as usual, have barely covered Kerry’s historic visit.

On the afternoon of August 13, while television reporters commemorated Fidel Castro’s eighty-ninth birthday, near the US embassy in Havana the hustle and bustle of the national and international press as well as heightened security measures were clearly in evidence.

Nearby streets were closed to vehicular traffic and Cuban flags hung from some balconies. Area businesses, most privately owned, were also closed.

“I can’t wait for Kerry to leave. I’ve gone three days without any business,” says Julian, the owner of a small cafe near the embassy, which will is closed from August 3 to August 18.

The bustling triangular park where people wait to apply for American visas was deserted. There were only policemen in blue uniforms and people in civilian clothes or on bicycles. Some foreigners tried to pass themselves off tourists, but their physical build gave them away as US Secret Service agents.

Around 9:45 am on Friday 14, fifty-four years after it came down, the US embassy in Cuba once again hoisted the flag of broad stripes and bright stars.

After the celebration, many jaded Havana residents with no future asked themselves how improved relations with the United State will improve their lives. They expect more of the same from the Cuban government.

Breaking through the wall of stagnation and gaining the trust of a regime that focuses more on political and social controls that generating a powerful middle class will be a formidable task for the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, the townspeople will be watching as the procession goes by, just like in Berlanga’s film.

Iván García