Obama's 'Tear Down This Wall' Moment in Cuba
Weeks before President Obama's arrival in Havana, uneasiness was already perceptible in the ranks of the Cuban government. For sure, President Raul Castro knew how much his regime could benefit from a historic event that would signal, better than anything else, the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was no less aware, however, of the risks associated with hosting an American president who was intent on openly defending the cause of human rights and liberty during his journey.
The ruling government's anxiety was all the more understandable considering that a poll carried out in April 2015 found President Obama's popularity among Cubans (80 percent) soaring well overhead that of the Castro brothers (47 percent for Raul and 44 percent for Fidel).
To unnerve the regime further still, there was Obama's sine qua non condition for visiting the island, namely: to be able to meet with representatives of the Cuban dissidence, including the Ladies in White, who are beaten and detained practically every Sunday after they take to the streets of Havana and other major cities of the island to call for freedom of expression and association.
Compelled to tolerate the meeting requested by Obama, the Cuban authorities attempted to dilute its impact by pressing the U.S. negotiators to include regime-picked representatives of so-called civil society -- a move that would enable the Cuban government to infiltrate its pawns and police informers into that gathering. Obama's negotiators, however, made it clear that the list was non-negotiable: only the Cubans chosen by U.S. authorities would be invited to the meeting.
The malaise on the Cuban side manifested itself from the very first minutes of Obama's journey. In a departure from the practice of protocol, the Cuban president was not present on the tarmac of Havana's airport to welcome his American homologue.
All things considered, that absence played into Obama's hands, for it was in consonance with his unhidden aim of making the trip not so much a state visit as an encounter with the Cuban people.
Rain was falling when Air Force One landed, and President Obama came out of the plane holding an umbrella -- which he shared with his wife Michelle -- instead of asking a subordinate to do so for him. The gesture had a successful -- and probably intended -- PR dimension, all the more so as Latin Americans will have noted the contrast between that moment and the moment, a few months ago, when Bolivian President Evo Morales -- a political heir of the Castro brothers and an all-out egalitarian leftist -- instructed one of his bodyguards publicly to kneel down and lace Morales' shoes.
The press conference held on the first official day of the visit was a chance to show to Cubans the abyssal difference between a democracy and a dictatorship in the realm of communications and public debate. While Obama looked relaxed throughout the exercise, President Castro lost his temper when a CNN journalist dared to ask about the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.
Unable to conceal his annoyance, President Castro had the gall to assert that there were no prisoners of this kind on the island under his charge, and he challenged the journalist to submit a list of such prisoners so he could free them before the end of the day. Cuba's internal dissidents and exiles swiftly submitted lists showing the existence of 87 to 89 prisoners of conscience.
President Castro's reply on that occasion likely will embarrass the Cuban government in the weeks and months to come. From now on, when the Ladies in White and other dissidents are beaten in the street after their Sunday march, and taken by force to a police station, Raul Castro's denial of the existence of political prisoners will resonate worldwide as blatant hypocrisy.
The high point of the journey undoubtedly was the speech delivered by Obama at the Grand Theater of Havana -- a speech that the regime grudgingly agreed to broadcast nationwide at Washington's request.
In front of Raul Castro and an audience carefully selected by the Cuban government, President Obama made an unambiguous plea in favor of freedom of expression, pluralism, and free enterprise. References to human rights spread throughout the speech and must have been felt, both by the government and the population, like political darts aimed at the Castros.
Like all historic speeches, Obama's will be remembered by one sentence -- one addressed to President Castro: "I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders."
It is a safe bet to argue that Cubans yearning for Liberty vibrated with delight as they heard -- via state-controlled radio and television -- this request, comparable to Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall," addressed to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
A few hours after the speech, the meeting between Obama and Cuban dissidents took place at the U.S. Embassy. That such an encounter even took place no doubt helped to increase the international profile and visibility of the courageous men and women whom no head of state -- not even Pope Francis -- had hitherto dared to meet.
At an earlier event, President Obama had expressed admiration for Cubans' ingenuity, which in his view is at the core both of the economic vitality of Miami ("one of the world's most dynamic cities") and of the resourcefulness of Cuba's incipient entrepreneurial class, the cuentapropistas -- namely self-employed workers who, although tolerated, are straitjacketed by absurd restrictions and smothering taxes and confined to very few areas of activity. By hearing Obama's words, those cuentapropistas could not but dream of how far they can go, and how they might prosper the day free enterprise is fostered, rather than vilified, on their island.
Aware of the lasting impact that Obama's visit would have on his fellow countrymen, the Cuban government organized a Rolling Stones concert (whose songs had remained prohibited for decades and anathematized as a symbol of capitalist decadence). The concert took place in Havana in the wake of President Obama's departure. One cannot help but think that the timing of the Rolling Stones' performance was aimed at making Cubans forget what Obama had said during his journey.
It is far from sure, however, that a rock ‘n' roll show, famous though the performers may be, can erase the impact of the visit of a president of the "Empire" who, by his multiple gestures and words, will have managed to instill hope (Sí, se puede -- Yes, we can) in the hearts and minds of the Cuban population.