President Barack Obama recently concluded a diplomatic visit to Cuba. It was the first visit of a US President in 88 years, the first since the Cuban Revolution.
He arrived in Havana on March 20th under a surprisingly cloudy and rainy sky, accompanied by his wife, daughters, and entourage. In his two and a half days in Cuba, he visited Old Havana and historic foundational sights, showing great respect for Cuban history and traditions. He also paid his respects to José Martí’s memorial, the most respected Cuban philosopher, thinker, and father of Cuban Independence.
He later met with Cuban President Raúl Castro at El Palacio de la Revolución. Their speeches and attitudes showed a relaxed and collaborative atmosphere. They both acknowledged each other’s moves towards the completely normal relations between the two countries, as well as deep differences that can and must be respected. He also met with different officials, ministers, economic authorities, and business people, both Cuban and American, to discuss possible future beneficial business opportunities for both countries.
On March 22nd, President Obama gave a historic speech at Gran Teatro de La Habana The speech showed great respect for Cuban people, history, and their achievements, as well as for their freedom. He enumerated the virtues of Cuban character: pride, sacrifice, and strength; and he also acknowledged Cuban service to the world –doctors fighting Ebola in Africa, mediating in Colombian war, etc. He showed great knowledge of Cuban history and even personal cases of Cuban diaspora in the US, their reunion with their Cuban families and the lack of resentment. He acknowledged a tumultuous history between the US and Cuba, that is now in the past, and emphasized that the present is the time for reconciliation. He even called for hemispheric union when he said: “we’re all Americans.”
It was a passionate, moving, respectful, and optimistic speech, from which I would highlight a sentence the President spoke in Spanish: “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos de los cubanos” - The future of Cuba has to be in the hands of Cubans.
After the speech, President Obama joined President Castro at a historic baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. Before the game started, there was a ceremony with different sport shows, both national anthems, and a minute of silence for Brussel’s terrorist attack victims.
Overall, Cubans were extremely happy and excited about the visit. It represents a hopeful landmark in Cuban history, and expectations for change and progress seem likely to become solid realities.
When I came to Cuba (more than three years ago) to start our program in Cuba, I found two countries divided by a history of differences, to say the least. The “mission” I sensed behind a study abroad program was to help both peoples come together, to better know and understand each other. Our students got to meet the real Cuba and experience that the rivalry between both countries was just a political one, portrayed by governments, but not the real people. It has been a long and arduous journey, but I could never suspect I would see President Obama speaking to the Cuban people in Havana with both flags behind him.