Obama scores a triple in Havana

Editors’ Note: Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard Feinberg reports from Havana on President Obama’s historic visit to the island.

Walking the streets of Havana during Obama’s two full-day visit here, the face of every Cuban I spoke with lit up brightly upon the mere mention of Obama’s name. “Brilliant,” “well-spoken,” “well-prepared,” “humanitarian,” “a true friend of Cuba,” were common refrains.

These Cubans did not need to add that their own aging, distant leaders compare unfavorably to the elegant, accessible Obama. And the U.S. president’s mixed ethnicity is a powerful visual that does not need to be verbally underscored to a multi-racial Cuban population.
But this skeptical question remained: “Would the visit make a lasting difference?” Would the government of Cuba permit some of the changes that Obama was so forcefully advocating?

In his joint press conference with President Raúl Castro, and in his speech in a concert hall that was televised live to an intensely interested Cuban public, Obama spoke with remarkable directness about human rights and democratic freedoms, sparking more than one overhead conversation among Cubans about their own lack thereof.

With eloquent dexterity, Obama delivered his subversive message carefully wrapped in assurances about his respect for Cuba’s national sovereignty. “Cubans will make their own destiny,” he reassured a proudly nationalist audience.

“The President of the world”—as average Cubans are wont to refer to the U.S. president—emphasized that just as the United States no longer perceives Cuba as a threat, neither should Cuba fear the United States. Offering an outstretched hand, Obama sought to deprive the Cuban authorities of the external threat that they have used so effectively to justify their authoritarian rule and to excuse their poor economic performance.

On Cuban state television, commentators were clearly thrown on the defensive, seeking to return the conversation to the remaining economic sanctions—“the blockade”—to the U.S. occupation of the Guantanamo Naval Base and to past U.S. aggressions. Their national security paradigm requires such an external imminent danger.

Obama sought to strengthen the favorable trends on the island, by meeting with independent civil society leaders and young private entrepreneurs. One owner of an event planning business confided to me, “I cried during our meeting with Obama—and I rarely cry—because here was the leader of the most powerful nation on earth meeting with us, and listening to us with sophisticated understanding, when our own leaders never ever do.”

Obama assured the Cubans he would continue to ask Congress to lift the remaining economic sanctions—but he added that the Cuban government could help. It could allow U.S. firms to trade with the Cuban private sector and cooperatives, and now with some state-owned enterprises “if such exchanges would benefit the Cuban people.” So far, the government has permitted very few such transactions—ironically, an auto-embargo. And the Cuban government could engage the United States in an effective human rights dialogue and prioritize settlement of outstanding claims.

Certainly, the administration needs Cuba’s help in broadening constituencies in the United States for its policy of positive engagement with Cuba. Some U.S. firms—Verizon; AT&T; AirBnB; now Starwood Hotels and Resorts; shortly, various U.S. commercial airlines and ferry services—are signing deals. And the surge of U.S. travelers visiting the island typically return home as advocates for deepening normalization. Obama’s entourage included nearly 40 members of the Congress, the largest of his presidency, he said.

But Obama still does not have the votes to lift the embargo. He told the Cubans he has “aggressively” used executive authority to carve out exceptions to the embargo, such that the list of things he can do administratively is growing shorter. In effect, he tossed the ball into the Cuban government’s court. Only if Cuba opens to U.S. commerce, only if it shows a disposition to improve its human rights practices, might the U.S. Congress be moved to fully normalize economic relations.

If Cubans were so impressed by Obama, why do I only reward him a triple? Fundamentally, because his White House staff failed to secure a schedule that would have exposed him more directly to the welcoming Cuban people. There were rumors he was to throw out the first pitch at an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team (won 4-1 by the U.S. squad), but that opportunity was denied. Nor was he permitted to make his main speech before an outdoor Cuban public. As he walked around Havana’s colonial center, the authorities allowed only small crowds. Michelle and accompanying daughters, Malia and Sasha—potentially powerful symbols in a family-oriented country—kept subdued schedules. Overall, the Cubans managed to hem Obama in, and to hand-select most of the audiences from among their loyal followers, audiences that were predictably polite but restrained. Fortunately, the meeting with opposition activists went forward as planned.

Further, while Obama’s remarks were well received, his texts were not as well woven together by coherent narratives as they might have been. And many Cubans would have liked to hear more about specific measures to build a more prosperous economy.

When asked whether Castro and Obama had “chemistry” by a reporter, a senior Cuban diplomat preferred to refer to “mutual respect.” But the two leaders did seem to develop a real rapport. During the baseball game, they spent a full hour sitting next to each other, seemingly in relaxed conversation. And during a brief question-and-answer period at the end of their joint press conference, when a U.S. reporter peppered Castro with hostile questions, Obama jumped in to fill time while Castro—not at all accustomed to press conferences—struggled to compose his response.

Cubans will long remember this visit by the sort of charismatic leader that they once had, in a youthful Fidel Castro, and that they would long to find once again. In the meantime, the Obama administration will do what it can to reintroduce Cuba to U.S. goods and services, U.S. citizen-diplomats, musical concerts, sports stars—Shaquille O’Neal, among others—and other cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges. And it will also spread ideas, about how to improve the sluggish Cuban economy and gradually integrate it into global commerce, and in the longer run, to help give average Cubans a greater voice in determining their own national destiny.