“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” Thus did President Obama salute a historic transformation in US-Cuban relations in his speech today at the Gran Teatro in Havana, in the first visit to Cuba by a US president in 88 years. The audience included Raúl Castro and other Cuban dignitaries; the grande dame of Cuban dance, Alicia Alonso; and a delegation of US senators, representatives, and business leaders. “Somos todos Americanos,” the president added, to applause.
A new chapter has indeed begun in relations between the two countries, as the president completes a series of formal and informal meetings with Raúl Castro, while his business-oriented entourage holds talks with Cuban entrepreneurs and economic ministers, and the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban national baseball team in a display of béisbol diplomacy. In timing, tone, and agenda, the trip represents Washington and Havana’s high-profile effort to “seal the deal” after the dramatic accord to normalize relations, announced simultaneously by both presidents on December 17, 2014.
Since then, the two countries have worked slowly but steadily toward normalizing diplomatic interaction as well as commercial relations, which remain limited by the economic trade bloqeo, as Cubans call the embargo. But with only 10 months left in Obama’s presidential tenure, and the looming unpredictability of the 2016 presidential election, both governments recognize the need to consolidate bilateral ties and lock in the policy of engagement. “We very much want to make the process of normalization irreversible,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes in his briefing to the media a week before the trip. “So by taking the trip…we will be facilitating more Americans traveling to Cuba, more American businesses operating in Cuba, more benefits to the Cuban people that come from those openings, more exchanges between our countries, and that has a momentum that people, we believe, will not want to reverse going into the future.”
During his press conference with Raúl Castro on Monday, Obama forcefully reiterated that point: “The path we are on will continue beyond my administration.”
THE RED CARPET
When President Obama arrived at the Palacio de la Revolución on Monday morning for his meeting with Castro, he found an actual red carpet awaiting him on the marble stairs of the entrance. Both countries had taken steps to set the popular stage for this presidential summit. Just before leaving for the island, Obama participated in Cuba’s version of a Saturday Night Live–style skit with the country’s most popular TV personality, Luis Silva. The comedian plays a clownish character named Panfilo on the mostly widely watched weekly program, Vivir del Cuento. Panfilo’s running gag is that he is always trying to call the White House, but the president never answers. Then, on the episode just before the trip, Obama actually picks up the phone.