Cubans Cast a Critical Glance on Obama’s Havana Tour

Havana, Cuba (GVO) – “Cuba’s future will be decided by Cubans.” Speaking in Havana on March 21, 2016, Obama vowed that the US trade embargo on Cuba “will end” and signaled his intention to respect the decisions of Cubans about their country’s future.

While Obama’s tone marked a clear departure from the rhetoric of past US presidents, his choice of words left plenty of netizens wondering who Obama really means when he says “Cubans”.

Pro-government blogger Iroel Sanchez responded, asking.

Obama says that the future of Cuba is a matter for Cubans to decide. The problem is, which Cubans — the minority that wants to “empower” them through dependence on US businesses? Or all Cubans?

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are watching intently this week as President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting US president to visit the countrysince 1928. Hundreds of US journalists reporting on the visit appear almost giddy as they tweet and report on everything from trade to AirBnB accommodations to the upcoming Industriales – Tampa Rays baseball game.

Meanwhile, Cubans on the island (at least those with Internet access) and off are voicing firm critiques of both leaders.

Writing for La Joven Cuba, a collective blog of university students who tend to express support for the Castro government, Jesús López Martínez suggested that rather than allowing Obama to “bring a vision of progress” to Cuba, Cuban leaders should teach Obama the benefits of their system:

We can offer our insight on public health, something he can take back to his country, where millions of people have no healthcare. If he wants to talk about human rights, we can teach him how our police behave, so that he can avoid the manslaughter of black people by their own police forces.

While numerous Twitter users echoed Martínez’ sentiment regarding public health, heavy policing of public areas and a surge in detentions of anti-government activists before and during the visit undercut his second argument.

Indeed, the visit has been marred by arrests and detentions of some of the Castro government’s most vociferous local critics. Multiple outlets reported on the Sunday afternoon arrests of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), an organization of wives and mothers of male prisoners of conscience in Cuba who regularly demonstrate — and sustain short detentions by state police — in public spaces in Havana.

High-profile human rights advocate Elizardo Sánchez was also detained while en route to Havana on Saturday, where he intends to meet with Obama. Sánchez estimates that 180 Cubans have been arrested before and during the visit thus far.

In a joint press conference between the two leaders — a rare event for Castro — the topic of human rights arose multiple times. Prominent US television journalist Andrea Mitchell asked both leaders how the two countries would work together given their disagreements on the issue. Following Obama’s response, Castro said:

What country complies with [all human rights]? Do you know how many? I do. None. None whatsoever. Some countries comply some rights, other comply others. And we are among these countries. Out of these 61 instruments, Cuba has complied with 47 of these human rights instruments. There are countries that may comply with more, those that comply with less. I think human rights issues should not be politicized.

Castro then continued, touting Cuba’s healthcare and education systems and guarantees of equal pay for all genders.

Balint Földesi, Flickr, Creative Commons Cuba Camagüey, Cuba

Balint Földesi, Flickr, Creative Commons
Camagüey, Cuba

Shortly thereafter, a reporter asked if the Cuban government would consider releasing political prisoners. Raúl Castro first expressed doubt as to the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, then responded: “Give me a list of political prisoners and I will release them,” and then refused to speak further on the matter.

Shortly thereafter, Cubans and Cuban-Americans on Facebook and Twitter began sharing multiple versions of such a list. Technologist and blogger Eliécer Avila pointed out that Raúl’s response showed a total lack of due process in Cuba:

…It demonstrates that here there is no law or judicial system beyond [Castro’s] will, this is why he confidently promises that if he’s given a list of political prisoners, “they’ll be on the street by tonight.”

Multiple reports have surfaced indicating that Cuban state police exerted increased control on the public and on vocal critics of the regime in particular. Democracy advocate and council member of the Christian Liberation Movement Rosa María Rodriguez described state precautions around the visit as “millimetric.” “Nothing moves without them knowing about it,” she said.

Rodriguez’ organization, which is based in Cuba, was founded by Oswaldo Payá, a democracy advocate best known for pushing for democratic change within the bounds of Cuba’s constitution until he died in a car crash under mysterious circumstances in 2012.

Multiple critics, most of whom are writing from outside Cuba, commented on the meaning of Obama’s political identity and image within the Cuban context. What does it mean, they asked, for Cubans to see a relatively young, black president elected for two terms in the US, while Cuba’s top-level leadership is still dominated by white men in their 70s and 80s? Recent census numbers indicate that 14% of the US population identifies as black or mixed-race, while an estimated 36% of the Cuban population identifies as black or “mestizo” (mixed race).

Writing for Huffington Post, US sociologist and Cuba expert Ted Henken reflected on racial discrimination in both the US and Cuba, describing Obama as “a powerful symbol” of US achievement in “racial justice and equality,” while acknowledging that the US still has a “long way to go.”

Writing for El Pais, Cuban historian and Mexico-based writer Rafael Rojas reflected on Obama as a symbol of progress not only in the area of racial inequality, but also as one who “speaks the language of democracy of the 21st century”:

Obama embodies many things that young Cubans on the island value after 56 years of communism: the social and political rise of African-Americans in the United States, a push for public policies that benefit a majority of citizens….a democrat of the 21st century who speaks the language of democracy of the 21st century. But Obama is also living proof of something that young Cubans must view with a mix of longing and fascination: a politician who will be stepping down from power at 55 years old, the age of the youngest people among the governing octogenarians on the island…

Observatorio Crítico, a communist intellectual blogging collective put forth a more nuanced critique of the way Cuban authorities handled the visit, drawing from a Marxist perspective:

In situations like Obama’s visit, our country is supposed to avoid showing conflict or confrontation, but we reserve the need to distinguish between government protocols and public expression.

Public organizations and other avenues for civil society expression are indispensable in process of achieving political agitation in the face of official visits by leaders such as Obama and François Hollande, or in the context of arbitrary moves made by these governments towards entities with whom they want to improve economic relations.

Observatorio Critico makes a keen observation here: Despite their disagreements on human rights and social policy, at the end of the day, the rekindling of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US may stem chiefly from a shared belief that the shift will better serve the economic interests of both parties.

This report prepared by Ellery Roberts Biddle for Global Voices Online.