On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a breathtaking speech to the Cuban people.
It was a speech only he could deliver; with powerful words spoken from his unique perspective as America’s first African-American president, and true to his devotion to a new diplomacy that reflects our ideals and the realities of the post-Cold War world.
One of those realities is terrorism. Watching his speech on television in the U.S. meant seeing it through a split screen; one eye on the podium and the audience in Cuba’s majestic Gran Teatro de la Habana and another on the horrific terror strike in the Brussels airport and subway system.
Although the president touched on the tragedy at the start of his remarks, those of us who watched the speech on television seated with Cubans in Havana, had a unique split-screen experience of our own.
We heard President Obama, who came to office talking to one audience, the Cuban American diaspora, and speaking one word of Spanish, “libertad,” code for regime change, now using the rich vocabulary of engagement to articulate “one overarching goal” for our relations with Cuba: “advancing the mutual interests of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans.
His address, adorned with references to Jose Marti, sounded big themes: respect for Cubans and aspects of their revolutionary project; reconciliation of the Cuban family; race and the evolution of America’s democracy; the promise of generational change and prospects for a brighter future.
As he spelt out the terms of a new bilateral relationship, we heard him addressing audiences in both countries: historicos in Havana and hardliners in Washington; the business class in America and entrepreneurs in Cuba; Cubans and Cuban Americans, old and young; the Cubans who want to realize the goals of their revolution through 21stcentury means, and Americans who want to support their neighbors as they plan a future in this new special period of peace.
Make no mistake: this was a respectful and challenging speech about what the U.S. reconciliation could mean to Cuba’s people, delivered in ways that surely inspired some and discomforted others. The president also explained to the people of our country why he is working to normalize relations with Cuba and why doing so serves our interests in this new time.
That said, reasonable men and women of good will in the U.S. – not just opponents of the President or his policy – criticized his reaction to Brussels as the day unfolded. He should have cut his visit short, they said, or devoted more time in his speech to the tragedy; he should have skipped the baseball game against Cuba’s National Team, not spoken to ESPN, or not done the wave (here, they might have a point).
But, had he left his work in Cuba unfinished, it is likely that much of what made this trip so powerful – the speech, the joint press conference with President Castro in which both men took questions (to the astonishment of many Cubans), along with that really awkward hand-jive moment at the end (which astonished us all) would have been blunted.
For the president to leave Cuba in the wake of the attacks would have been a throwback to what had already delayed this moment for decades; the idea that the U.S.-Cuba relationship was either too unimportant or so immutable in its existing form, it did not merit reconsideration or the President’s full attention. Instead, he persisted and remained as connected to his task, and to the people of Cuba, as they were to him.
In this edition of the Cuba Central News Brief, we provide a concise and curated selection of reports we recommend reading that account for each stage of his journey to Cuba, as well as a more expansive treatment of a remarkable speech that is likely to be influential for a long time to come.
“I plant a white rose.”
As the New York Times noted, the President at the outset of his speech, communicated his respect for the talents and ingenuity of Cubans, the service offered by Cuban doctors in places like West Africa, to alleviate suffering and care for the poor, and the role of Cuba’s government in facilitating the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. His words to the Cuban people, suffused with the spirit of Jose Martí, began by quoting the poet, “Cultivo una rosa blanca,” I plant a white rose.
Offering more than just grace notes, the president gave his sharpest and clearest statements to date that he intended to bury the Cold War, and with words that should echo in the Council of State and the U.S. Congress, it was time to “leave behind the ideological battles of the past.” Like many in Cuba and the United States, he affirmed, “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”
Obama’s American Creed
With expressions both challenging and reconciling, the President acknowledged that “part of Cuba’s identity is its pride in being a small island nation that could stand up for its rights and shake the world.” Noting the new era of reduced bilateral tensions, and invoking Dr. Martin Luther King’s in “the fierce urgency of now,” President Obama said it was time to set aside the fear of change and embrace it.
By renouncing the intention of U.S. policy to impose change on Cuba, “having removed,” as he said, “the shadow of history from our relationship,” the president could then give voice to ideas core to the American canon and creed. He said things that his predecessors had only said – or dreamt of saying – from the comfort of Washington. But, he could say them in Cuba, to Cuba’s leadership, and to Cubans watching him on national television, because he had summoned the courage to make the trip.
“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.”
The transcript shows the president was interrupted throughout this passage by applause, but accounts from the scene indicated that not everyone in attendance clapped.
The Washington Post reported the speech “was like nothing the people of Cuba have heard in many years.” In it, the president “issued an emotional appeal for an end to decades of ‘painful and sometimes violent separation’ between those who left for new lives in the United States – who were long officially reviled [in Cuba] as traitors – and those who remained behind.”
The split screen projected its magic in Miami. “Mr. Obama’s emotional reference to émigré Cubans drew tears from many watchers,” the Financial Times reported, as they stared at their televisions in South Florida.
Here, too, the special genius of the speech was in evidence, as the president associated his person and his background with the lives of the lighter skin Cubans who comprise nearly all of the diaspora. “They also know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to struggle, and to work harder to make sure their children can reach higher in America.”
This speech will be remembered for the momentum the President chose to put behind the reconciliation of the Cuban family.
Racial Justice as a Metaphor for Democracy
When President Lyndon Johnson addressed the U.S. Congress in 1965 to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act, he pointed to the faith expressed by black Americans who were using the mechanisms of democracy to win back rights they had been deprived of by those same mechanisms. Forty years later, Barack Obama, the truest beneficiary of Johnson’s legacy, again invoked his life story, as a message to Cuba’s considerable Afro-Cuban population, and as a metaphor for the therapeutic effects of democracy, even as he conceded our country’s continuing challenges with racial bias.
President Obama noted that in 1959,
“The year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states. When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South. But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”
As he reminded his audience of his first meeting with President Raul Castro, at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, he said “We want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.” This message sparked the Los Angeles Times to ask, What Obama’s visit means for Cuba’s national conversation about race.
The Role of Young Cubans in Building their Country’s Future
If the President’s opening to Cuba is allowed to flourish – by decisions made in Washington and Havana now and after he and Raul Castro leave office – there should be a peace dividend deposited into the pockets of Cuba’s next generation. Without it, the President warned, Cuba’s youth will lose hope. To our ears, what could have sounded like a tough love message – opponents of reform in Cuba who are concerned that U.S. policy really hasn’t changed – was delivered with a white rose attached.
In his remarks, he held up the example of Sandra Lidice Aldama, who chose to start a small business. “Cubans, she said, can ‘innovate and adapt without losing our identity…our secret is not copying or imitating but simply being ourselves.”
In this new era, the President seemed to say approvingly, Cuba would still be Cuba, that it’s revolutionary values would live on, if that’s what its young people decided.
Three days after the President left town, his State Department unveiled a $750,000 grant program targeting Cuban youth, and invited the kind of social service organizations our government has used in the past that destroyed trust in our motives, to lift up Cuban youth. With that, a petal fell from the white rose and hit the floor with a resounding thud.
What Happens Next?
As we published tonight, the President has returned home, and the Rolling Stones were getting ready to hit the stage in Havana. Now, the task begins of testing whether the President’s trip and his carefully chosen words give greater force to his reforms and make them more resilient, less prone to reversal, in the months and years ahead.
The visit was clearly a bonanza for U.S. businesses – like General Electric, Western Union, the Carnival Cruise Line, and Starwood Hotels – who got to join the President’s entourage and announce deals his policy allowed them to make. Even as the hardline opponents of the president’s policies called these contracts sell-outs of the Cuban opposition, Cuban dissident, José Daniel Ferrer called the president’s speech, “a light in the dark.”
But, perhaps the most realistic assessment was offered by Elaine Diaz, whose words, ring authentic and true, whether your split screen shines in Cuba or the United States:
“Tomorrow,” she wrote, “Cuba will still be Cuba. And Cubans will leave their television screens and start worrying again about daily issues: food, salaries, housing, public transportation. But it will be, hopefully, a better Cuba. Not because we received an American president on our soil, which is great, but because the signs we pay attention to will no longer be expressed in binaries: capitalism or socialism, good or bad, rain as resistance or as purification. Our world will be a more nuanced one.”
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