he skies heralded the March 19 arrival of President Barack Obama to Cuba — the first time a U.S. leader had visited the island since 1928. Cuban state media gave live coverage to Air Force One’s approach, capturing the moment Obama and his family emerged from the plane and the skies opened. The downpour soaked the Obamas’ motorcade as it rolled into Havana on rain-slicked streets.
The rain continued for most of the presidents two-and-a-half-day visit, a significant inconvenience for the Cubans who had been given time off work for the event and for the photojournalists who had traveled to the country to record history. Many Cuban residents lined the streets as the motorcade drove through, hoping at least to catch a glimpse of “la bestia,” or “the beast” — the bomb-proof, tricked-out presidential limousine that became a major subject of conversation in the car-obsessed country. (Many others, however, used their time off to play dominoes, drink rum or go for a swim.)
The weather broke only after Obama headed to the capital’s main baseball stadium for a final awkward hang with Cuban President Raúl Castro — all weekend, the two leaders had treated each other with bemused affection and general befuddlement. Clouds parted and let the sun shine onto the faded pastel buildings and pocked streets of the Cuban capital as As Air Force One rose into the sky.
Everyone here noted this omen. What it signaled, no one necessarily agreed. But the dramatic weather certainly seemed to fit the mood of of the historic visit.
In a speech delivered in gorgeously refurbished theater in Old Havana, Obama attempted to articulate the importance. He offered a few proclamations that inspired Castro to applaud (“Cuba has an extraordinary resource — a system of education which values every boy and every girl”), and some that left the Cuban leader stone-faced (“I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear”).
But Obama’s mere presence was more important than anything he said. Cuba’s state media repeated ad nauseam in on TV and in newspapers: For the first time since shortly after Fidel Castro’s bearded guerrillas marched into Havana in 1959, the U.S. was officially recognizing Cuba as a sovereign nation with a legitimate government. The U.S. president may not agree with every policy, but he was showing that the country deserved respect.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama said.
And so he had. His visit represented the culmination of a remarkable opening to Cuba, something that will likely be considered one of the most impressive and important foreign policy achievements of Obama’s presidency. unnamedHillary Clinton, who ran against Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, called his “willingness to meet with dictators” — meaning Cuba’s leader, as well as other leaders of so-called rogue states — “naïve.” Raul Castro, it seems, was listening. After he officially took over the Cuban presidency from his ailing brother that same year, he repeatedly stated his own “willingness to discuss on equal footing the prolonged dispute with the United States.” It took until Obama’s second term for the two leaders’ mutual willingness to meet to bear fruit, with a key assist from the new pope of Latin American heritage, in the Vatican. But with secret talks over prisoner exchanges paving the way, the two leaders announced the détente’s arrival in simultaneous speeches on Dec. 17, 2014.
Obama’s arrival in Cuba marked the formal end of an outmoded approach to this island that had long since ceased being a security threat to the U.S. The old approach was based in isolation, antagonism and a decades-long economic embargo. But here was Obama to say that those tactics had to go: “What the United States was doing was not working,” the president said in Havana.
Which wasn’t to say his administration didn’t still favor major economic and political shifts, if not the outright “regime change” that was official policy under Obama’s predecessor. It does. Obama and his people were just convinced that the best way to both serve U.S. interests and change Cuba was not by strengthening the embargo, but by weakening it. To that end, they had in preceding months moved to relax restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. And they’d also effected changes far more significant than that for most Cubans — like raising the limits on remittances that their cousins and friends could send them, from $500 per quarter to $2,000.
Castro had welcomed these steps: He could hardly do otherwise, given how his Communist Party had long railed against the United States’ bloqueo — or economic “blockade” — of the island, calling it “the longest genocide in history.”
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Cuba’s leader also knew well, as Obama acknowledged, that fully lifting the embargo isn’t within his power: That would take a vote of Congress, and getting one anytime soon is highly unlikely. But given that the Communist Party has no interest in relinquishing control of the country, it’s clear that Castro’s other reasons for welcoming these changes are rather different than his reasons for instituting them.
And many of these reasons come down to something Cuba’s government shares with its people: It needs money. The island’s rusting state-run economy is hugely inefficient and cash-poor. It needs foreign funds. So does the government, to maintain its vaunted social safety net for an aging population. And one of the Communist Party’s longstanding bets here, in working to maintain and bolster its power in the wake of the Soviet bloc’s collapse, is that attracting more tourists will continue to provide those funds. The devil’s bargain implied by this hope has been operating in Cuba for some time: Only time will answer the question of whether — and how quickly — the continually growing presence of foreigners in the country will corrupt a listing socialist system.
But if there was any doubt that the number of American visitors is now set to explode, that doubt was lessened by the fact that Obama didn’t arrive with a planeload of just staffers and legislators and CEOs from U.S. companies hoping to get into Cuba. He also brought his wife, daughters and, as many Cubans remarked, his suegra — his mother-in-law. The president remarked that his daughters don’t usually like joining him on official trips abroad, but that Sasha and Malia went to Cuba because they wanted to. Of course they did: Isn’t this where Beyoncé and Jay Z vacation these days? With celebrities and other notable people turning up by the score to hang in plush new clubs made possible by the recent legalization of private enterprise, Havana is rapidly regaining a place in the minds of hip Americans similar to the one it occupied before 1959 — a city to visit for an exotic bit of tropical fun. The trend perhaps reached its ludic apogee a few weeks after the Obamas’ visit: The Kardashians turned up with camera crew, and after a Chanel fashion show staged in Old Havana preened and took selfies next to old cars and political signage that now resonated as so much revolutionary kitsch.
For such visitors, Havana is little more than a stage set for their own fantasies of it. That’s true of visitors to many of the world’s most visited places, of course. But unlike in Florence or Paris, say, such visitors’ willful failings to understand this place — to apprehend it as a vibrant and complicated city with its own internal life, and dynamic logic — carries with it the perverse belief that they are somehow going to change it overnight (or, as one hears regularly in certain circles these days: “Go to Cuba before it’s too late!”). And there are at least a few things mightily off about this presumption. The first of these is that people from the rest of the world have been visiting Cuba for years — Canadians made it their top vacation spot in the ‘90s. Second is the condescending leap to think that this hugely potent culture, astounding in its deep riches and influence, is going to be “ruined” by a few more gringos—or that that culture’s makers aren’t hugely prideful, whether they’re friends of their government or fierce foes, about determining what happens on their island for themselves. There’s a reason Obama got the loudest applause for the line in his speech that began, “Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down—but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new,” and whose applause line he delivered in Spanish: “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano.” (“The future of Cuba has to be in the hands of the Cuban people.”)
The rub of Obama’s line, of course, is that you can hear it in a couple of different ways—it sounds a lot different depending on whether you’re someone disposed to believing the Cuban Communist Party is synonymous with the Cuban public. For many young people especially—Cubans born decades after the Revolution, and who know its once-glamorous leaders only as crusty old men—the answer to that question is at best ambivalent. Today the questions dominating Cuban politics and life, alongside what everyone constantly wonders about the pace and impacts of economic reforms, are the same ones that have been doing so for a while now—but with a twist. At last month’s Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, an ailing Fidel Castro, dressed in a sweatsuit, addressed his comrades from the dais. “I’ll be 90 years old soon,” he croaked, “Soon I’ll be like all the others.” The Cuban Revolution’s once and forever maximum leader, once thought immortal, was admitting he’d soon die. And so the question here remains: will his old comrades, looking to those younger, get out of the way—and what will come in their place?