The day after President Obama ended his historic trip to Havana, Cubans turned on their TV sets and watched his surprise guest appearance in a skit on the popular weekly show Vivir del Cuento (Live by Your Wits). The show’s star, Pánfilo—a character created by Cuban comedian Luis Silva—is playing dominoes in his humble apartment against two friends, complaining that he needs a teammate. Lo and behold, the president of the United States walks in. “¿Qué bolá?” Obama says, Cuban slang for “What’s happening?” After chanting “Obama, Obama, so nice you came to Havana,” Pánfilo asks the president how his visit is going.
“It’s been excellent!” Obama tells him. “The people have been wonderful. The food has been excellent, [also] the music. The Cubans here have all treated my family so nicely. I’m very grateful, and I’m so excited to be able to make this trip.”
“An emotional moment!” Pánfilo agrees. “A time of mutual respect. We are so happy that [US-Cuba] relations are getting fixed…. And not only relations, but the streets also,” he adds slyly, referring to the government’s efforts to spruce up Havana before the American president’s arrival.
It was actually Obama’s second appearance on Vivir del Cuento; he’d taped a mock phone call with Pánfilo from the Oval Office for an episode that aired just before his arrival in Havana. The president’s cameos were quietly arranged by the US embassy, with Obama having final say over the proposed script sent from Havana to the White House.
Obama’s humorous chitchat with Pánfilo advanced a key goal of his trip: direct engagement with the Cuban populace. His deft use of president-to-people diplomacy proved to be the most successful accomplishment of his three-day visit. “He is a person who knows how to speak without offending,” one taxi driver commented. “Unlike all the previous presidents.”
Obama came to Cuba with an ambitious agenda. In addition to forging a direct and positive connection with the Cuban public, he wanted to establish a rapport with President Raúl Castro and mobilize economic, cultural, and political forces in the United States in support of his commitment to “write a new chapter” in US-Cuba relations. The president intended his trip, notes American University professor William LeoGrande, to be “a bold stroke aimed at accelerating the process of normalization and making his policy of engagement irreversible.”
The timing, itinerary, and presidential entourage were all designed to advance that goal. By going now, rather than waiting until he’s a lame duck after the November election, Obama will have more time to use the power of the presidency to deepen normalization. The president’s schedule included formal and informal bilateral meetings with Raúl Castro; forums with Cuban entrepreneurs and human-rights and democracy advocates; and opportunities to engage Cuban society at large—through TV and radio, as well as by attending a baseball game with some 50,000 Cuban fans.
Along with his wife and daughters, Obama was accompanied by a large bipartisan congressional delegation as well as CEOs and VIPs from major businesses like Google, PayPal, and Airbnb. His entourage also included politically influential Cuban-American businesspeople from Miami who have been converted from diehard backers of regime change to avid proponents of engagement. Most prominent among them was Carlos Gutierrez, who served as secretary of commerce during George W. Bush’s second term. Gutierrez predicted to reporters in Cuba that, in the wake of Obama’s trip, US business interests would “become more active” in pushing the GOP-led Congress to lift the US embargo.