Obama and Us

"The visit of the United States President to Cuba is the big news across the world’s media. What have been the expectations of ordinary Cubans? Do they really care if Obama comes?".

This text belongs to the file titled “Five Years after the visit of Barack Obama to Cuba.

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo

Within a few weeks, five years will have passed after the visit of president Obama to Cuba. As it happens with many events, the pictures that circulated in the media from the very beginning of this visit, as well as the inner mechanisms of memory, have contributed to mythologize them with some sort of mark. Given these circumstances, Temas invited a group of scholars on inter-American relations from the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and particularly from Cuba, to reflect on their connotation. We are retrieving these observations because of their effectiveness to think critically and equably about some problems of today and about future scenarios.


*Published 22 March 2016.

The visit of the United States President to Cuba is the big news across the world’s media. What have been the expectations of ordinary Cubans? Do they really care if Obama comes? Does he benefit them, harm them or make no difference? How are things going to change after he arrives in Havana on Palm Sunday? Will they feel freer? Some even speak of "the chemistry between Obama and the people of the Island," a strange luminous phenomenon that no one has yet been able to see, but which is anticipated, like those predicted by the Theory of Relativity.

After the initial expectations following Saint Lazarus’ Feast Day of 2014 jubilation evaporated, the familiar long-term rhetoric again took hold, inducing, on the rebound, a common-sense reading equivalent to "life goes on as before." In effect, over the intervening fifteen months, it has often been repeated that normalization is "a very distant goal", relations remain "essentially the same", "they are working toward the same ends, only the means have changed", "the blockade bites and extends”. So, the presidential visit had been anticipated as "simply a symbolic act", because "nothing will change while there is a blockade". Indeed, "we are still at war, only now it is cultural." And so it goes on.

However, when you look around, you will see that in these same fifteen months, Havana has been packed with visitors, not only in hotels but also in private rental rooms; the customs offices can’t cope; expensive restaurants, rented transportation and services that supply them are raking it in; migration into the United States through the South America/Central America/Mexico route has grown 60% ("just in case they get rid of the Cuban Adjustment Act"); the number of Cuban emigrants returning to the island after living a long time in the North has hit record levels. Remittances (officially estimated in 2014 at $1.7 billion, and increasingly directed towards investment in the non-state sector), tend to be stimulated by normalization — although the exact figures, as usual, have not been published.

In the process of dialogue, negotiation and cooperation known as normalization, there has hardly been a week without movement between Cuban institutions and US entities, even beyond the foreign ministries, in sectors such as culture, higher education, the environment, maritime and airborne security, crime control, law enforcement, health, and even foreign trade.

Like the blockade, normalization has an extraterritorial effect. Thanks to the new relationships, the shares in Cuba's image on the global stock market have skyrocketed. After having been painted, just a few months ago, as the Gulag of the Caribbean, Havana has suddenly become "one of the 10 top cities to visit", and particularly for those newcomers, a kind of socialism theme park. Indeed, despite the fact that, according to our tourist agencies, what they are looking for is sun and sand, the new visitors strolling along our streets say they want to see “Castro's Cuba” with their own eyes, while Fidel and Raúl are still alive, and before, they say, McDonalds flood in, and it becomes just like any other small island in the Caribbean.

A recurring question everywhere —also when we are talking to each other— is whether we Cubans are prepared for this close encounter with the US. What will happen when the "North American tsunami" is unleashed? What will happen when will they land with their icons, their all-powerful media, their cruise ships, their Grammy awards, their addictive TV serials, and their range of other addictions, on our shores, in a country trained for the "surprise mass air strike" and "the People's War"? What will it be like if we hoist the flag from our trenches when the enemy does not arrive by parachute, but through the airport, and comes to pay us a visit at the trench line itself? Are we going to wait for him “with our guard up” or are we going to shake his hand? Will the new slogan be "one hand on the shield and the other outstretched"? Is it that all this will happen only at some undetermined time in the future, when the blockade is lifted, or is it already happening?

Admitting that we Cubans are still poorly trained in this new postwar situation with the United States, however, does not imply ineptitude or incompetence in dealing with American society and culture. Understanding it is key to being able to appreciate the mark made by this presidential visit, with all that it reflects from the past, and projects moving forward.

I wonder if John Kerry's and Ben Rhodes' advisors fully understand, firstly, how very American, culturally speaking, we Cubans are, regardless of age, social group, gender, color and ideological taste.

Perhaps they warned the President that he was going to find "the most disconnected country in the world" in terms of the Internet, an island populated by natives of the predigital world, lacking not only a domestic connection, but oblivious to Google, Facebook, e-mail, cell phones. Or an audience subjected to State-controlled TV, who never get to see on their screens the likes of Leonardo di Caprio, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, or Miley Cyrus (“Yes, they know them, but only young people, through a black-market service called "The Weekly Packet"); and a radio that filters out American music, including rock, jazz, hip hop, and everything that smacks of "cultural imperialism" ("The Beatles were banned until recently"). Perhaps they will have told the president that the Catholic Church —"the only actor in civil society tolerated by the government,"—  is the voice of the Cuban people; while sidelining not only evangelical religions, most of them originating in the United States, but also the Masonic lodges, and especially the Cuban religions originating in Africa, despite these being the most widely-practiced and representative of the real civil society.

If Obama could walk down the street at his own pace, like any other North American, he might be able to appreciate that the capital is a mixture of architectures, among which art deco and modern styles from the North are very visible. He would be able to see that Cubans are fond of the "yumas" (an affectionate term, used instead of gringo or Yankee), who can never get lost in this city because everyone here babbles a bit of broken English, nor do they risk their lives when they walk about at night in a neighborhood like Old Havana. Or at least go to a ball game together –something that would be difficult to achieve in Buenos Aires or Beijing–, a national passion that makes our two peoples celebrate and suffer like no other.

A certain Fernando Ortiz once said: "The closeness of this powerful culture is one of the most active features of our culture." And he added: “Let's not be blinded by our latent resentment resulting from their constant selfishness, their frequent clumsiness, sometimes from their wickedness and often from their contempt. It is not a question of gratitude, but of objectivity.” The advisers, theirs and ours, could notice that this insight from our greatest anthropologist has nothing to do with competing ideologies, but with related cultures, the implications of which, for political communication, are difficult to overstate.

Of course, we cannot confuse this way of living and expressing our identity with the feeling of being North American. The fact that Cuban culture absorbs things from abroad, and makes them their own, does not mean that we enjoy the ethnocentrism of the North, to which Ortiz already pointed, nor that we willingly accept their certificates of civilization. Treating us with different standards than those applied to others does not go down well either. Some believe that, when Obama meets with hostile groups such as the Ladies in White and other allies of the Cuban-American conservative lobby, radically opposed to normalization and against any national dialogue, he is limiting himself to adhering to a policy that "reflects his values." Do  es he respond in the same way on an official visit to China or Vietnam, or when he addresses his Latin American allies, such as Mexico and Colombia? Does it occur to him to include in his agenda a meeting with the veterans of Tiananmen Square, the imprisoned Vietnamese bloggers, the organizations of family members of those tortured, murdered, and classed as "missing," who abound in Latin America and the Caribbean? Does he actively support THEM? If it is about "values", universally applied, no exceptions should be made for large countries or their supporters. From down here, that difference is perceived as what they call up there "double standards". And that's not exactly a feature of the democratic culture that both sides claim to defend.

If it is about living together in harmony, the lessons that Cubans need to learn are different. The first is knowing how to react to Sadim's touch - Midas backwards - which turns everything that Washington's policies touch into a sort of fecal matter, in line with their interests and priorities. When they are keen to promote the private sector, the internet, academic exchanges, or initiate programs aimed at young people, entrepreneurs, or artists, because they imagine this is the way to draw them in, our instant reaction should not be one of suspicion or obstruction ("If the Americans support them, there must be some reason behind it"). In this simple way, they are able to take the initiative in conditioning our internal policies, and delay or skew the changes that we know we need to make, albeit on our own terms.

The second is strategic. We have to learn to explain to them what Cuba is like. To achieve this, we have to understand them. Many times, their attitudes towards us do not respond so much to an entrenched ideology, but to a political culture, including their beliefs about what is free and democratic. Getting them to understand our beliefs, and the real Cuban society, even if they do not share the same ideas, is key to gradually building this new relationship from the bottom up. Without trying to free them from their ideas and visions, born out of another political culture, it is enough for them to get to know us better and understand us, so that everything can be different.

Both lessons involve learning to play with the white pieces as in a game of chess, and making use of the Cuban reserves of intelligence and culture. If these reserves did not exist, how do you explain, for example, that when young Cubans, all born after 1959, emigrate, they manage to adapt so quickly to the free-market economy and consumer culture, to the point of being more successful than other immigrants, native to that culture, and supposedly better prepared? In this new relationship, which is not limited to the mono channel between governments, but which is a stereo transmission via the multiple channels of communication already open between the two societies, it is up to politics to ensure that all direct and indirect actors, within and without, can contribute to supporting and expanding this bridge, building on that cultural capital of ours. Or to use Lezama's words, three-quarters of a century ago: to build over "its boiling, frozen waters"... a bridge, a great bridge, which you cannot see."

Traductora: Jackie Cannon

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