In Cuba and U.S., Expectations Are Mixed on Obama’s Historic Trip
by SANDRA LILLEY , JOHN BRECHER and CARMEN SESIN
The 90 miles separating the island of Cuba from the United States seem
just a little closer as Havana prepares to host an American president
for the first time in almost ninety years.
“No American president has been here since 1928. I think it’s special
that he’s coming,” said Randy Williams Gutierrez, 28, sitting along
Havana’s famed Malecón overlooking the sea.
President Barack Obama arrives Sunday afternoon with his family and a
delegation of government officials and business and civic groups. Apart
from a bilateral meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro, the
activities will include a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and
the Cuban National Team, a visit with Havana’s Archbishop who has helped
broker U.S.-Cuba talks and events with entrepreneurs, artists and other
members of Cuban society.
But the most closely scrutinized events will be Obama’s speech to the
Cuban people on Tuesday followed by a meeting with a group including
Cuban dissidents and members of the opposition.
In Havana, the reaction to the highly-anticipated visit ranges from
optimism to cynicism.
“Obama’s visit represents the end of the embargo, which is what Cubans
want the most,” said Norberto Fajardo, who works in a market
cooperative.”Cubans are friends of the American people. I believe it’s a
But Onil, who only wanted to use his first name, said Obama’s visit
isn’t going to change anything for people like him; he’s unemployed.
“There’s too many problems that are impossible to solve… The ones in
power in the U.S. control through war and money, and Obama can’t do
anything about that,” he said.
Similarly, conversations with Cuban-Americans in the U.S. reflect the
varying positions on Obama’s seismic policy shift toward Cuba after
decades of a hard-line approach.
Among Cuban Americans, varying opinions
Vanessa Dopazo, an office manager at a Miami, Florida law firm came to
the U.S. at age 4 during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. She’s hopeful about
“It’s the right direction. We have to push for democracy in Cuba,” said
Dopazo, who has traveled to the island numerous times and thinks the
Cuban government uses the embargo as an excuse to justify the situation
on the island. She is convinced people in Cuba will demand a democratic
change once the embargo is lifted. “If we don’t start democratic
negotiations, then nothing is going to change.”
Recent polls show a large majority of Americans favor engagement with Cuba.
Antonio Tremols does not agree. The retired Miami resident and former
company executive left Cuba in 1960 when he was in his 20s after seeing
three university friends be executed and others thrown in prison.
“I have come to the conclusion that the only reason is that Obama has a
very big ego and wants to go down in history as the president who went
to Cuba and met with a dictator,” Tremols said. “I don’t see how the
Cuban people are going to benefit from Obama’s trip. How will this help
the average Cuban?”
Joe Cardona, a Cuban-American documentary filmmaker and Miami Herald
columnist, said he is not against engagement with Cuba, but against how
it’s been executed. Cardona said he voted twice for Obama and “supports
his agenda in almost everything … but Cuba came from left field.”
“Why not hold off on the presidential trip until you get something in
return that benefits the Cuban people,” he said, like free internet
throughout the island and acknowledging political opposition in Cuba.
But former Obama administration official Gustavo Arnavat, a senior
adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks
it’s a “mistake” to measure the changes taking place between both
countries by what Cuba has — or has not — done.
“What we’re doing is lifting restrictions we’ve imposed on ourselves,”
said Arnavat, who is Cuban American and works with individuals and
companies interested in import-export opportunities with Cuba. “We have
to think instead, what’s in the best interest of the United States?”
Alana Tummino, director of policy and head of the Cuba Working Group at
Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA), said it may seem
things aren’t happening that fast, but “you have to take a step back —
it’s been only 14 months.” Like Arnavat, Tummino will be there during
the president’s visit.
She points to the marked increase in travel among Americans, and
subsequent economic and social interactions with the Cuban people, as
well as to the recent news about Airbnb as examples of a marked
difference from a year ago. As to American business dealings with Cuba,
“they’re not going to happen right away but they are making
relationships,” she said.
Apart from economic and diplomatic issues, Arnavat thinks that Obama’s
changes have lifted a cloud of “illegitimacy, that everything in respect
to Cuba is wrong or unethical.” Allowing easier access to visit
relatives or send money “has made it okay for Cuban Americans to care
for their families and their country of origin like every other
immigrant group,” he said.
A space for the opposition
One of the main points of concern for many in the Cuban American
community, Cuban American members of Congress and opposition activists
in the island is whether the president’s visit will put a focus on the
issue of human rights in Cuba. In the last few months groups have
documented an increase in the number of arbitrary arrests and temporary
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello is a noted former political prisoner and
Cuban economist who was in Miami on her way to a trip to Europe.
“I don’t think the American public knows what really happens to
dissidents in Cuba,” she said. “Those of us who actively oppose the
government are a small group.”
Most ordinary Cubans are more vocal about material goods or issues of
salaries and living standards, she said.
Leticia Ramos, a member of the Damas de Blanco opposition group who was
in Miami last week and was taking a letter back to the group from
President Obama, said it was important he see “beyond the hospitals,
schools, and city zones which have been repaired for the visit — he has
to hear from us what is happening.”
In Cuba, former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer, who heads the
dissident group Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said he welcomes
Obama’s visit. It’s only when international leaders visit Cuba that
human rights are in the international spotlight.
Ferrer told NBC News he was invited by members of the U.S. embassy to
the meeting with Obama. He said he knows of 10 to 15 prominent activists
who were also invited, including Berta Soler from the group Damas de
Blanco, independent blogger Yoani Sanchez, as well as noted dissidents
Guillermo Fariñas and Antonio Rodiles.
Administration officials have said they are confident the president will
be able to meet with the group.
Speaking about Obama’s address to the Cuban people, Ferrer hopes the
American president will be a good “orador” and give a speech similar to
the one former president Ronald Reagan gave in West Berlin in 1987.
“It’s very important for Obama to tell Cuba that it’s necessary to tear
down many walls,” Ferrer said. “The measures the Cuban government have
taken so far are not substantial.”
In Obama’s last year, making these incremental changes ‘irreversible’
The president’s trip to Cuba will be Arnavat’s sixth trip to the island
in less than a year. One thing that has struck him is that “last time I
was there, it was Cubans who were saying we need to get this done,
because this has to be irreversible. It’s clear Cubans understand that
this opportunity that exists today may not exist tomorrow.”
Speaking to Cuban Americans at a Miami conference sponsored by the
pro-engagement group Roots of Hope, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben
Rhodes said the U.S. government cannot impose a change in Cuba.
“We can’t say we are going to squeeze and squeeze and we’ll determine
what will happen,” he said. “Everything we’re doing is to help them
access a better life.”
Despite the bigger questions between the two countries, in Havana it’s a
busy week ahead, with a historic visit from the American president and
his family, lots of media attention and at week’s end, none other than
the Rolling Stones.
Source: In Cuba and U.S., Expectations Are Mixed on Obama’s Historic
Trip – NBC News –