WHAT A REMARKABLE photo-op. Under umbrellas and a steady rain, with his wife and two daughters by his side, an informally- dressed US president skips over puddles in Old Havana. In the fading lights of Sunday, the President strolls through the Cuban capital’s 500-year-old historic quarter, taking in the colonial plazas and the streetscapes; later steps inside an 18th century cathedral to meet a cardinal, followed by dinner in a small private establishment. If this wasn’t magical enough, nearby an unusual chant arose. These were, as reported by the media, “USA! USA!”
This was, in symbolism, the Berlin Wall moment. The closing, at least in appearance, of the final remaining chapter in Cold War history.
On 20 March, President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba, a journey that measures less than 150 km by distance, but one that took almost a century to complete. Before his arrival, he appeared in a skit with a Cuban comedian, Pánfilo, who offered a ride from the airport and the use of his double bed. Upon landing, Obama tweeted, ‘¿Que bolá Cuba?’ (the Cuban Spanish phrase for ‘What’s up?’). Upon reaching the embassy, the smiling President is believed to have asked the staff, “¿Como andan?” (“How are you doing?”) The three-day visit is the first by a US president since Calvin Coolidge’s trip in 1928. In the years after that trip, a revolution led by Fidel Castro brought a communist government to the island nation, almost caused a full-scale nuclear war, and led to a US embargo that has continued to cripple the island nation’s economy.
Obama’s visit is the culmination of a 15-month effort to normalise relations between the two countries that began in December 2014. It is a trip steeped in symbolism and rapprochement after decades of bitter hostility. With this trip, Obama—who has abandoned a longtime US policy of trying to isolate Cuba—is trying to make, as media reports have indicated, Washington’s shift in stance toward the island nation irreversible, irrespective of who occupies the White House later this year.
During this visit, Obama will hold talks with President Raúl Castro, but not his brother Fidel. He will speak with businessmen and entrepreneurs. He will attend a baseball game, address Cubans live on state-run media, and privately meet Cuban dissidents.
The visit comes amid high anticipation and anxiety. Back home, Washington will want more than what it gives. In Cuba, the government will hope to reap benefits without ceding control, while Cuban dissidents will want Obama to speak out for them. However celebratory the nature of this visit, there continues to remain several sore points. In the joint press conference of the two leaders, Obama and Raúl Castro, the suave and smooth politician and the former gruff revolutionary, there was a perceptible clash of world views. Obama spoke about human rights and democracy. And Castro, demanding the handing back of Guantánamo Bay and the end of the US trade embargo, spoke about universal healthcare and equal wages for both men and women. As Obama claimed at the conference, “After five very difficult decades, the relationship between our two countries will not be transformed overnight… We continue to have significant differences.”
Obama will want to seal the diplomatic legacy of his presidency with this trip. He does not, as he has claimed, want to be imprisoned by the past. Last year, he told The New York Times, “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.” “The Cold War,” he said, “has been over for a long time.”