Last week, President Obama met with Cuban President Raúl Castro in the first official visit made by a President to the island nation since 1928. The meeting was a historic moment for both nations, as it marked a rekindling of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba after decades of tension. While the meeting on Monday between the two leaders was pleasant and groundbreaking, there was, nevertheless, controversy and awkwardness surrounding the President’s appearance.
For many Americans, Obama’s visit to Cuba was cause for celebration: two nations with vastly different modi operandi and cultures restoring some semblance of diplomacy after decades of tension and isolation. However, not all shared this positive approach. Instead, many felt betrayed and that the President’s visit ripped open the old, improperly healed wounds suffered by thousands of exiles and refugees who fled Castro and communism for their best chance at freedom. So many Cubans had lost their lives hoping for a better life in the U.S. Now those deaths seemed to be in vain as President Obama awkwardly shook hands with a dictator and laughed with him at a friendly baseball game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
The President’s purpose of this visit was ultimately to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas.” While the idea sounds wonderful to many Americans who want peace and the erosion of tensions between one of our closest neighbors and us, many exiles vehemently opposed the proposal. “I must say that before hearing Obama’s speech, I was pretty blindly outraged by Obama’s boldness in submersing himself in an issue that I felt he knew nothing about,” Bella Prio (CSOM ’18) told me this past week. Bella’s family’s roots run deep in the defunct Cuban democracy. She had many relatives who worked closely with the government before Fulgencio Batista ascended to power. Batista was preceded by the last democratically elected leader of Cuba, Carlos Prío Socarrás, who was deposed by a coup in 1952 and was also one of Bella’s relatives. “Watching Obama shake hands with a murderer stung, to say the least. My grandma called me in tears as she watched the coverage of the event. Seeing a U.S. President, her symbol of freedom and security, flirting with her symbol of death and oppression reopened a wound long-held and never forgotten,” Bella continued.
Like so many other Cubans living in the United States, Bella believes that President Obama made a very ambitious move by reestablishing diplomacy, a move that exemplifies an air of haughtiness and exceptionalism. “I simply fear he overestimates how much the Cuban people themselves will work to achieve the democracy we all hope for,” Bella told me in an email. She cites the fact that so many government regulations and restrictions on free speech and the free market, as well as the fear of imprisonment or death, have left the Cubans still on the island completely brainwashed.
Furthermore, Bella claims, rightly so, that Obama’s inspiring words mean absolutely nothing to the Castro brothers and other communists, who enjoy the benefits of an oppressive government while the people live in poverty. Fidel Castro, who held power from 1962 until 2008, when Raúl took power, scorned at the President’s visit after he returned to the U.S. “We don’t need the empire to give us anything,” he stubbornly penned in a column for the state-controlled newspaper La Granma. Both Castro brothers also criticized Obama for lecturing the Cuban government on human rights, when America has their own history of human rights violations, most notably the extermination of native peoples across North America.
While the President’s visit to Cuba had its controversies, the attention Cuba has received is ultimately a good thing and step towards normalcy, even though that may not come for years still. Obama said himself that change can happen in a country, referencing the current Presidential Election, which features two Cuban-Americans, a woman, and a Jew, something that the United States itself could not have possibly foreseen in 1959. “The biggest issue for Cuban exiles when it comes to garnering attention for our plight is the simple fact that not many people care about such a small island nation that seems so hopeless,” Bella says. She continued, “I can’t help but be grateful that Obama has taken this interest and his spotlight has followed him to the island, bringing light and American attention to the issue.”
There are many complexities to the U.S.-Cuba relationship, and none of those can ever be fully understood by average Americans who don’t feel the pain that so many Cuban exiles and refugees do. Following the President’s visit last week, it will nevertheless be fascinating to see how diplomats from both nations interact with one another and work together to improve human rights in Cuba.