Reflections On Obama’s Cuba Visit

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The shot of Air Force One coming into land in Havana was iconic and the perfect way to begin this new chapter in relations between the US and Cuba. There are moments in history you don’t want to miss, and this momentous visit by Barack Obama was undoubtedly one of them.

The reestablishment of bilateral ties between the two countries faced many obstacles, most prominently Cuba’s well grounded suspicion of the US government. The breakthrough came in late 2013 when anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela died. Mandela held the Castro brothers in great esteem and was grateful for their contributions in facilitating the defeat of the apartheid government in South Africa which Reagan’s administration embraced. Both Raúl Castro and US president Obama were invited to the funeral which put the US president in an invidious position. Be courteous towards Castro and face the wrath of extremists back home, or snub the Cuban president and disrespect Mandela’s family. Obama thankfully chose the former and recognised that Cuba’s president had a right to attend the event. This then provided the foundation for the relationship to develop with Castro expressing his appreciation for Obama’s civility at the funeral.

Obama’s politics are odious, of that there is little doubt but as a politician he is remarkably competent. It was clear that throughout the visit to Cuba, Obama was totally in his element – you could readily discern that he was fully enjoying being a part of this historic visit. Obama honoured Cuban hero José Martí and laid a wreath at his memorial. Amusingly during the ceremony, a mural of Che Guevara loomed large in the background, quite expectedly US Republicans reacted with fury. During Obama’s press conference the condescension about human rights was accompanied by praise of what Obama called Cuba’s “enormous achievements” in healthcare and education, and their humanitarian contributions in east Africa where their doctors have put their lives on the line to alleviate the suffering of people who contracted Ebola. Castro maintained that the occupation of Guantánamo Bay and the inhumane embargo would remain as impediments to full normalisation of relations. The trip ended on a good note, where both Obama and Castro attended a baseball game between Cuba and The Tamba Bay Rays. Many must have thought their eyes were deceiving them when Obama and Castro participated in the Mexican wave, which again aroused rage from Republicans. Raúl Castro then travelled with Obama to the airport and waved goodbye as Obama departed to Argentina.

While’s Cuba’s grievances with the United States cannot end during one visit, there is now a path towards reconciliation which is a step in the right direction. Neither Cubans nor the vast majority of Americans have much interest in a return to violence, and a majority of Americans want the deplorable embargo to be lifted. It would be nice for both countries if ‘American democracy’ delivered what their people want.

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