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Along With President Obama, the 21st Century Visited Cuba
White House Letter

HAVANA — The White House made sure the wireless signal inside the Grand
Theater of Havana was strong and fast last week as President Obama made
his case for change to the Cuban people. He spoke of evolution and
burying old wounds from before he was born. He bluntly challenged
President Raúl Castro of Cuba, sitting across the hall, to change his ways.

Outside that theater and throughout Cuba, Internet access ranges from
sluggish to nonexistent, and change is equally slow. The wounds that Mr.
Obama spoke of are the defining grievances of Mr. Castro’s lifetime and
that of his older brother, Fidel.

The 30 years between Mr. Obama, 54, and Mr. Castro, 84, help explain the
vast gulf that separates the two leaders, on vivid display last week as
the American president made a historic visit to Cuba.

Mr. Obama’s trip was calculated to highlight the generational contrast
and appeal to a younger cohort both in Cuba and in the United States,
presenting his vision for a thaw as the inevitable way of the future,
and the hostility and isolation that came before as the stale remnant of
another century.

“He moved with this fluid, lanky, youthful movement, and that contrasted
so strongly with Raúl and his stiff military bearing,” said Richard
Feinberg, a senior fellow in the Latin America initiative at the
Brookings Institution, who traveled to Cuba last week to witness the visit.

“His speech constantly focused on generational shift, youth, the future,
let’s put the past behind us,” Mr. Feinberg added. “A lot of these
things didn’t have to be said — you had the visual representation that
sent the message.”

At a news conference last Monday at the Revolutionary Palace, Mr. Obama
was confident and in his element as he addressed reporters and fielded
questions, while Mr. Castro, unaccustomed to such an exchange and
apparently irritated with his translation headset, showed his age.

“The iconic image was Castro getting all huffy about some pretty anodyne
critiques of the human rights situation in Cuba,” said Michael C. Desch,
a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame.

“The gestalt of the visit for Obama was very much ‘I know you’re on your
way out, and I’m going to speak to the Cuban population about what the
future looks like after you.’”

It was a message that Mr. Obama delivered visually as much as verbally.
In Cuba, where two-thirds of the population is black or mixed-race — and
Mr. Castro and the vast majority of his government are white — a
mixed-race American president embodied possibilities that most Cubans
consider out of reach.

Mr. Obama, who built his first presidential campaign around support from
younger voters and themes of generational change, gravitates to youths
wherever he travels. Forums at universities or with young leaders active
in their communities are staples of his foreign trips, and Cuba was no

At an entrepreneurship event in Havana, Mr. Obama offered encouragement
to young Cubans working to establish their own businesses within their
country’s state-run economy. He brought along Brian Chesky, the
34-year-old founder of the online booking company Airbnb, telling the
audience, “You can see how young he is.”

Later, at his speech to the Cuban people at the Grand Theater, Mr. Obama
pressed the generational argument on Mr. Castro, who sat listening in a
balcony across the room.

“If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to
different points of view, you will not reach your full potential, and
over time, the youth will lose hope,” Mr. Obama said.

“I know these issues are sensitive, especially coming from an American
president,” he added.

Mr. Obama’s message is grounded in the political reality of a changing
Cuban population, both in the United States and on the island.

While older Cuban-Americans tend to harbor lingering feelings of anger
and resentment about that country’s Communist government, leading them
to favor embargo and isolation, a younger generation has less emotional
investment in those decades-old disputes. Likewise, while many members
of older generations who remained on the island have a visceral
connection to the revolution and all that followed, their children and
grandchildren may have little memory of the roots of resentment toward
the United States.

Speaking directly to their perspective, Mr. Obama said in his speech: “I
know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted before the president’s trip and
released last week illustrates the divide. Among respondents in the
United States ages 18 to 29, fully 64 percent said they approved of Mr.
Obama’s handling of Cuba, compared with 49 percent of those 30 and
older. While the poll showed majority support over all for his approach,
with 52 percent approving of it and 30 percent opposed to it, people 65
and older were substantially more negative, with 42 percent of them

Lopsided percentages of young people said re-establishing relations with
Cuba would be good for the United States, according to the poll, while a
smaller majority of older people did.

Mr. Obama moved around Havana in the sleek black limousine known as “the
Beast,” through streets that appeared frozen in time, packed with
classic American cars of the mid-20th century.

“You drive around Havana and you say, ‘This economy is not working,’” he
said later. “It looks like it did in the 1950s.”

Likewise, the theater where he spoke to the Cuban people looks very much
as it did 88 years ago, when Calvin Coolidge, the last sitting American
president to go to Cuba, spoke there to a Western Hemisphere summit meeting.

This time, though, Mr. Obama’s staff made sure there was plenty of
Internet connectivity for his message of change and transformation to be
posted on Twitter, streamed and broadcast as widely as possible.

And then, just as quickly, the president finished speaking, and the
signal strength died. Mr. Obama left Cuba not long after, his motorcade
passing by signs bearing old revolutionary slogans and portraits of
Fidel in younger days as it went.

Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

Source: Along With President Obama, the 21st Century Visited Cuba – The
New York Times –

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