Monday, March 21, 2016

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S VISIT TO CUBA: TWO QUOTES AND A FABLE



Harry Targ

Two statements from articles in the New York Times

At the heart of Mr. Obama’s policy is a gamble that the thaw will eventually force changes on Cuba’s communist government by nurturing the hopes of its citizens, particularly a younger generation more interested in Internet access and business opportunities than in Cuba’s grievances against the United States. (Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Obama Hopes Cuba Visit Can be Harbinger of Political Change,” New York Times,, March 19, 2016.

Elizardo Sanchez flew to Havana from Miami on Saturday, looking forward to meeting President Obama with other Cuban dissidents invited to the United States Embassy here on Tuesday. But at the airport, Cuban officials decided he would have to wait.” (Damien Cave and Frances Robles, “Cuba’s Message to its People: Be On Your Best Behavior for Obama,” New York Times, March 20, 2016.

A Fable

The presidential plane touched down at the Havana airport early in the afternoon, Sunday, March 20. A full plane of dignitaries, politicians of both political parties, business people and State Department personnel eagerly lined up to exit the aircraft and stand on Cuban soil, many for the first time. Among the dignitaries were representatives of a variety of U.S. groups, who for years had lobbied, protested, educated, and demanded an end to the economic blockade of the island which was initiated by President Eisenhower in the summer, 1960.

The President, his wife, and daughters disembarked, walked over to embrace the welcoming Cuban dignitaries. The President spoke very briefly indicating that he was truly excited to be reestablishing a long broken relationship. The President suggested that while he was in Cuba he would be discussing pressing diplomatic matters--ending the embargo, closing the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, and opening up a new era of close collaboration that might mend the historic animosities that have divided the United States and most of the countries of Latin America.

The entourage drove from the airport to the city, viewing thousands of Cubans exuberantly welcoming their guests. The visiting party registered at the historic Hotel National, where Hollywood stars, gangsters, and other former prominent members of the Hemisphere elite tied to Cuban dictators had resided in the past. The President and his family then began a brief tour of the exciting historic 500 year-old city.

First stop was Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Presidential family met with members of Old Havana cooperatives who are engaged in renovating the old city. Some earnings from tourism are used to rehabilitate old buildings. Schools in Old Havana educate young people in renovation studies.

As the party walked through Old Havana, they were told that the Cuban government, in consultation with literally hundreds of thousands of Cubans, decided in 2011 to begin shifting the Cuban economy from one dominated by the state sector to the private sector. The private sector would consist of two elements: small entrepreneurs and workplace cooperatives. 

While Cubans differ on which directions the economy should pursue, many Cubans are beginning to participate in cooperative forms of enterprise ownership and decision-making in the cities as well as the countryside. Some regard the work cooperatives as the centerpiece of a 21st century socialism. They expect cooperatives to continue the revolutionary project launched in 1959; creating economic equality, political participation, and continuing the society’s commitment to access to health care, education, adequate housing, sensitivity to the environment, and combatting existing racism and sexism. The President praised the vision and noted that the United States is far from achieving these goals and might take back some ideas from the Cuban experience that could be adapted to circumstances in the United States.

The President told his tour guides that he had heard a lot about the Cuban health care system. He particularly wanted to visit the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). Since 2005, 23,000 students graduated from ELAM mostly from poor countries around the world. Currently there are 10,000 medical students at ELAM, with small numbers from the U.S. Students participating in the free medical training are encouraged to return to their home country and apply their skills to treat underserved populations. One newly credentialed U.S. doctor trained in Cuba has committed herself to provide health care for African American males in Cook County jail in Chicago.

Visiting ELAM the President confirmed how impressed he was with the youthful enthusiasm, commitment, and international solidarity described by the students he met. The President made it clear that ELAM was one excellent example of Cuban international solidarity.

After stopping in various communities across Havana, chatting with residents, the family returned to the Hotel National for a well-deserved rest and the President’s final drafting of his speech.
The next morning, bright and early, the Presidential party traveled to the huge Plaza of the Revolution, a vast open space that sometimes holds a million Cubans. On one building is a several story image of Che Guevara and across the plaza a statue of iconic hero Jose Marti stands boldly in front of a museum honoring him. As hundreds of thousands of Cubans assembled President Raul Castro approached the podium at the base of the Marti statue. He marked the historic visit of the president and indicated that while each country has some differences of values and priorities, the two have had a vast, complicated and intimate historic relationship. He welcomed unraveling the relationship, recognizing the common histories of descendants of Africans who play such a prominent role in the history of both countries.

The President was introduced, stepped to the podium, and presented a long and eloquent speech part of which is reproduced here:

“Mr. President, Ministers, and my Cuban Companeros and Companeras, I appreciate your welcome to the President of the United States. We have had many disagreements over the last sixty years and frankly the United States bears responsibility for most of them. Along with our repeated efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, led so passionately by Fidel Castro, we have engaged in an economic blockade of Cuba for most of that time. We are here to send a message to the Cuban people and to all the peoples of our hemisphere that the United States will now be embarking on a new foreign policy. I call it “A New Good Neighbor Policy,” named after the program announced by former President Franklyn Roosevelt many years ago. Only this time the policy will be different and will be sustained long into the future.

I have visited a few of your health care facilities and one of your medical schools, I’ve walked in your communities, and strolled along your beautiful coastal highway, the Malecon. I have talked with some of you personally and I see that you are a proud people. While you desire greater access to goods, improved housing, more resources to travel, I realized that you are proud of your revolutionary heritage. We may not always agree with you, or your friends in other countries, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. However, from this time forward we declare our commitment to you that we will not take away what every man and woman desires, the power to decide their own destiny. The United States has failed in this before, but I am here to promise you that we learned the lesson of your stubborn resistance to our interference and it will not happen again.”

In closing I remember the words of your poet and patriot Jose Marti: “Patria es humanidad.”