A History of the Future? Obama's Lessons to Cuban Civil Society

President Obama's address to a group of specially selected and invited representatives of Cuban civil society, which we saw on television, is a gem of political craftsmanship which ought to be studied in our university communication courses and Communist Party political schools.
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President Obama's address to a group of specially selected and invited representatives of Cuban civil society, which we saw on television, is a gem of political craftsmanship which ought to be studied in our university communication courses and Communist Party political schools. His sentences appear not to have been woven by experts and skillfully read from a teleprompter, but seeming instead to be coming from his heart. This piece of oratory, with its stage-management and its perfect delivery make it seem like a real conversation, not a thesis-laden document from start to finish.

In these comments, I outline some of those theses and the brilliant way in which the discourse was managed, in line with the logic with which the President has built the vision of our reality and that of the United States, as well as its directness. My modest comments are not intended to be the mirror of Cuban civil society but a scant critical reflection on common sense, both of Obama and of Cuban society, acknowledging its vibrant and politicized heterogeneity, not satisfied with monologues, however well argued and charismatic they may be, but wanting real dialogue among a diverse range of citizens, as there are many more than two. I do so in a spirit of discussion, not only at the invitation of President Obama to a debate that is "good" and "healthy," but because this debate has been practiced amongst ourselves for some time, as part of a freedom of expression that civil society has earned itself away from the fanfare, and without waiting for talents from on high or powerful benefactors from outside.

1. We must "leave the past behind".

Since his first speech at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, President Obama has insisted he is not responsible for the war that the United States has waged against Cuba, because everything started when he was "three months old". By applying this personal detail, he has managed to sidestep having to deal with the legacy of the use of force from the United States towards Cuba in the last 150 years. Today he tells us that his message is "an offering of peace" and that it is better to put a close to that past. He urges us to look to the future. However, he immediately follows up this white rose lead-in by passing the cost for the pain and suffering of the Cuban people to the revolution, writing off this period as "an aberration" in the history of bilateral relations.

If, instead of leaving the past behind, we wish to re-examine it in an even-handed way, and see it in all its complexity, without ideological filters or diplomatic rhetoric, it does not help to discuss it as if it were The Perez Family, that movie starring Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei. Normalization begins on the side of the United States, not on account of their limitless benevolence, but because the power of decision to change things has been in their hands. On closer examination, Obama's new approach and his disagreement with US policy throughout this same "aberrant" period is based on the view that it "was not working" because it did not achieve its goal: to overthrow Cuban socialism by force and through isolation. His merit is in having stated this in Port of Spain and now proclaiming "the courage to recognize it," even if it is a view that the world has shared for more than twenty years.

In his speech characterized by openness, however, he does not once say that besides being mistaken, the policy was counterproductive, not only because it crushed the welfare of the Cuban people and Cuban sovereignty, but it also imposed the need for them to arm themselves to the hilt, and it led to the damned condition of a fortress under siege, and to a national security situation, the economic and political consequences of which we are still paying. You cannot ignore that that eloquent US citizen who claims to tell us frankly and without mincing his words, what he thinks, is also the President of the United States. With the same frankness, he could have rolled up his sleeves and really gone for it, acknowledging the role of North America not only in the cost to the people, but also in our current problems, and by giving us an example of goodwill to say everything, without restrictions, if we really want to get to the bottom of things, now and in the future.

2. "Thanks to the virtues of a democratic system and respect for the freedom of individuals, the USA is the land of opportunity, where the son of an African immigrant and a single white mother could become president."

This notable discourse often leads us along classical paths such as the American dream, with the narrative mastery of Steven Spielberg, or that of the most celebrated author of our radio days, Felix B. Caignet. Although he refuses, rightly, to be trapped by history, Obama ends up giving his own account of the things that have happened, not only here, but over there. In one of his central themes he states that the social justice they achieved is precisely due to the democratic system adopted by the founding fathers.

Last year marked 150 years since the end of the Civil War, which divided the North and South of that great nation, in the most terrible conflict ever suffered by the United States in human and material terms, including all the wars in which they have ever participated. If democracy had been enough to solve the problem of slavery, that atrocious war --provoked by the uprising of a third of the country against the democratically elected legitimate power, with a human cost of 750,000 lives; half a million maimed; 40% of the South destroyed; property lost forever by many defeated Southerners; a president, Lincoln, vilified and eventually assassinated-- would not have been necessary in order to abolish it.

A century after that terrible Civil War, a devastation that makes our revolution look like just a breeze, despite all its human and family cost, yet Mama Obama had to go with her family as far away as Hawaii, where her mixed-race son could grow up without the rampant discrimination of the continental United States, as he himself reminds us in his speech. Even today, as proven by North American historians and sociologists, the wounds of that conflagration have not completely healed, and they have not managed to leave behind the structural causes of racial inequality and the associated violence. Even though Martin Luther King Jr. and many Americans of all colors, like us in Cuba, celebrated the success of a black candidate in the 2008 elections, we know that that is not enough to make a political system more democratic. Not there. Nor anywhere.

In terms of the pluralistic nature of the system, it sounds like wishful thinking that a social democratic candidate should campaign and reach the end of the campaign with some visibility, like a third way under the rigid framework of US bi-party politics, rather than being forced into a Democratic Party that he dislikes, in order to have any chance of participating in the 200-year old American political system, to which José Martí dedicated hundreds of pages, which we read little and know less about than we should.

3. "Socialism has its good things, such as health and education (although it lacks citizens' rights and the freedoms enjoyed in the US)".

Thank you. But everyone says that about our health and education. Strictly speaking, the question of comparing the attributes of our two systems requires placing them in a larger context. Before comparing it to Cuba, we should put the American system alongside other market economies and liberal democracies in the world. Does anyone else have one like it? What needs to be explained is why that democracy based on universal values, where everything is achieved, has not been able to provide a national health system, even one as incomplete as the original Obamacare project. How is it that public education, which is not a communist invention, has worked in many European countries, while the United States has such poor ratings?

As for measuring Cuban socialism, I wonder if this is contained in two free public services such as health and education, which Canadians and Finns also have. I know that many Cubans think so. From my point of view, however, the greatest achievement of Cuban socialism (including not only the government but all Cubans who make it possible) has been to claim their sense of human dignity and the practice of social justice, regardless of their class origin, color or gender. That explains, incidentally, why we Cubans today are alarmed at the growth of inequality and poverty, and we do not accept it as a natural fact, but as a fundamental erosion of citizenship status. Or it is that the cost to the losers is balanced out by the prosperity of the winners, and increased social polarization is the fixed cost of greater freedom? Is it solved with taxes and an alleged trickle-down effect? Where in the world does that happen? When I say equality - not uniformity or egalitarianism - I am referring to the actual law in practice, not simply the words written in a constitution.

We Cubans need to remember that our guest, Dr. Barack Obama, is a graduate of the Harvard Law School, and taught Law, constitutional law, at the University of Chicago, before becoming a community organizer in that city, and then a local politician, so he is fully aware of what we're talking about. One thing is the law and the institutions of the system, and another is social justice. To say that the practice of justice in Cuba is in "the role and rights of the State", as opposed to the individual, reveals, at best, ignorance, and at worst, bad faith. In his case, it must surely be the former.

Of course, on the road to full citizens democracy, we have a long way to go in terms of effective civil rights, law enforcement, empowerment and representation of all social groups, and not only for our private entrepreneurs. Undertaking this, grounded in our own political culture, and taking into account experiences of decentralization and local participation in Latin America, rather than those of our Asian friends, is a task that should not be put off till later. With sincere admiration for civil rights fighters in the United States, dozens of whom have been killed by the extreme right and harassed by the FBI, our horizon of citizen's rights is far beyond that.

4. "Change in Cuba is a matter for Cubans".

Naturally, we all applauded. But in the same sentence, the President takes a stand on the matter, defending the rights of "his Cubans", i.e. Miami exiles and dissidents in Cuba, who are precisely the ones recognized as allies of the United States. That said, we know that most of the emigrants of the 80s, 90s and today have not gone for the same political reasons that migrants in the 60s and 70s did, but rather for economic and family motivations. We also know that those who have left since 1994-1995 are not considered by US law as political refugees, but simply immigrants; that 300,000 of them visit Cuba each year peacefully; that these more recent immigrants account for half of all Cubans living in the US, and are the ones who send $1.7 billion to relatives on the island, with whom they maintain close ties because they did not leave in conflict. Furthermore, we know that half of the rest were born in the US, and therefore are not political refugees, and even visit the island with an American passport. As President Obama speaks of two million Cuban "exiles", with whom he promotes something called "reconciliation", is it possible that he does not know of the increasing number of returnees since the introduction of Cuba's new immigration law in January 2013? Or why Cuban Americans do not do business with Cuba because the embargo law prevents them? And if he doesn't know, then for whom is he advocating this "reconciliation"? Is it for the politicians of the archly Conservative Cuban-American lobby, which is opposed to normalization? Their allies in Cuba? The survivors from the Batista government?

Indeed, when he speaks of our relationship, that of all Cubans in Cuba with North Americans, he says that we are "two brothers... who share the same blood", that we have been "estranged for many years" as an inevitable consequence of this "aberration" we have here. Let it be said in all honesty, that for more than a century, Cubans have been seen (and for many we still are seen) as an inferior race, because we are people of color, nothing of shared blood. As for our genetic code shared with African Americans and Latinos, his advisers would do well to tell the President that those Cuban exiles in Miami, where there are very few blacks, and where there is rampant racism from the Cuban upper class, do not like to be called Latinos because they feel superior, as other Latinos and African Americans well know. Those "pedigree" exiles even rejected Nelson Mandela himself when he visited the United States and wanted to go to Miami. What's more, since his election, they have often referred to President Obama as "el negrito de la Caridad" ("the darkie of Charity", a nickname which is hardly a term of endearment). Now that he has done all this with Cuba, they just call him "the traitor". He must surely understand why it is not easy for us to reconcile with them.

5. "The normalization with the US is opening the doors to changes in Cuba".

According to this diagnosis, nothing has been happening here in recent years. In other words, thanks to 17 December 2014, the Cuban government "has begun to open up to the world" and has yet to discover that the greatest wealth of this country is its human capital. With all due respect to the private sector that we have, to imagine that our development potential and inventiveness can be measured in terms of renting rooms, opening up restaurants, and keeping the old American cars on the road, ignores our greatest asset, our human capital: doctors, university professors, artists, farmers, scientists, and other professionals. It forgets that journalists, officers of the armed forces, diplomats, primary and secondary teachers, company directors, many of them young and well prepared, are a key part of the wealth of the nation, although they are never going to become a "private sector". We must not confuse civil society with business. Or does someone think that these barbers and small business owners, so rightly celebrated these days, have sprouted up on the streets spontaneously instead of being created by Cuban law, and being linked to local institutions with which they collaborate?

This mutually exclusive view of private and public sectors seems to accompany the image of a country that is presented as paralyzed, where nothing changes, and will not change until the Cubans become familiar with alternatives to the prevailing viewpoints, thanks to communication with the outside world, which they currently lack. When they have an ADSL connection at home, and discover the internet, they will awaken, just like when the sleeping beauty was kissed by the prince. Meanwhile, they will remain in another world, without any form of internet access, or email or cellphones. It is not even the half-empty glass, but the idea that there is no glass at all.

Finally, in the mirror of the President's speech, nothing like an on-going reform program was reflected, nor a Cuban society able to discuss their problems publicly. Clearly, normalization may be positive for this change; but it may be also negative. From their side, it depends on the ability of US policy to treat Cuba as they do other countries with which they cooperate, despite internal differences and problems. The examples of China and Vietnam, evoked in the President's discourse on the day of Saint Lazarus, could be a constructive model to follow. From the Cuban side, it depends on the ability of our policy to avoid ideological attachments, such as those that occur whenever the US decides to favor a sector, whether Internet, non-state sector workers or young people. As our famous chef Nitza Villapol put it, now that US policy is the task of many, we will have to learn to cook it up in a non-stick pot where things do not get stuck, or needlessly spoiled.

The careful stage management of Obama's whole visit, whose climax in theatrical terms was the address to civil society on March 22, was outlined in the State Department blog post entitled "Engaging the Cuban People", published four days before, and written by Ben Rhodes, the Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting.

In his address, President Obama acknowledged Cuban cultural affinities with the United States in baseball, the cha-cha-cha, and "family values". He also drew attention to the abilities of Cubans, especially young people, to work in the context of the US market culture. Throughout his speech, he demonstrated familiarity with things Cuban, and with popular culture.

I'm not sure Obama's advisers understand that the Cuban familiarity with things North American is not only a reason to appreciate their products and showmanship, but also an ability to understand their uses and wranglings. Indeed, without previously ever having set foot on the island nor having grown up surrounded by Cubans, in his speech on the feast of Saint Lazarus in 2014, he said in Spanish "No es facil" (It is not easy), which is a very Cuban saying. In his telephone conversation with Cuban comic Pánfilo, he said: "Qué bolá", a colloquial Cuban greeting, which did not fit in the context in which he used it. Nor did it when he said it as Air Force One touched down on Cuban soil. He was able to quote José Martí time and again (omitting any quotes about the US). The cultural packaging of the message didn't miss a trick, even including reference to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami.

According to the script, the meeting sought to show support for "universal values and human rights, including respect for the right to freedom of expression and assembly." It anticipated the US President profound differences with the Cuban government on these issues, and his belief that the meeting puts the United States in a better position to raise these differences directly with the Cuban government, and continue listening to civil society. Finally, the speech briefing made it clear that his approach would emphasize "the continued spirit of friendship, and project his vision of the future relationship between the two countries." In short, the speech plan was aimed to blowing hot and cold at the same time.

I liked seeing Raul, from his balcony, smiling after hearing Obama's tirade, waving and gesturing at the audience, rather than assuming a dour expression or being upset. A few hours later, dressed in an elegant blue sports jacket, he accompanied a President Obama in his shirtsleeves, for the first innings of a baseball game, which we lost hopelessly. Sportsmanship is an old word, which may sum up very simply the new style of political relations required between Cuba and the United States.

In my view, we Cubans have a long road ahead in strengthening our practices of citizen participation and democracy, not merely multiparty politics. And it's best we take the bull by the horns instead of reciting that the only thing our socialism is missing is economic efficiency and the recovery of social wellbeing we had in the 80s, so as not to touch the workings of the political system, the media, the role of trade unions and social organizations, the Communist Party itself and the absolute power of the bureaucracy - what Raúl calls "the old mentality". It is not enough to quote him. We need to follow that script, which is not about theater, but a new stage set which is appropriate for the time and the people.

As for the significance of the visit for Cubans, it served its purpose, beyond the dramatics, as it allowed both presidents to converse directly about our common interests over the next ten months, the decisive stage in building this bridge so that the next administration finds its construction so advanced that it would be too costly destroy it.

Ironically, when Barack Hussein Obama vacates his office as 44th President of the United States, where he arrived eight years previously wrapped in the greatest hopes of recent decades, normalization with Cuba will be among his handful of achievements. Maybe in a few years the words crafted by his talented team of communications specialists, and what they say about us and them, will be forgotten. But many Cubans and Americans will not forget his message of peace, and especially, his determination as the first president, after so many years of war, to walk this path, so near and yet so far, and make a visit to us in Havana.

Translation by Jackie Cannon

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