A Small Bridge Among Rising Walls
La Habana, Cuba — Days before the historic visit of the President of the United States, the residents of Havana smelled the pungent tar filling decades-old potholes as the Cuban government literally paved the way for Barack Obama and his entourage.
Obama landed on Sunday afternoon under a tropical downpour for his three-day visit to the communist island of Cuba. It is no secret that the Cuban people welcomed the visit with great excitement and expectancy, as Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge came in January 1928. Passersby in Old Havana got on their toes to peak into restaurants that were broadcasting the arrival of Air Force One on old television screens.
“It’s good that he is here, the entire world is happy. I hope he will do well for the Cuban people!” said 22-year-old Leonardo Perez, as the streets echoed with people cheerfully yelling “Obama! Obama is here!”
“I have never really liked communism,” a middle-aged illegal cigar seller named Luís dared to say in the general euphoria. “I play percussions and the government gives me about $13 a month. That is not even remotely enough. How can I survive with an autistic child?”
Nevertheless, many citizens of Havana are proud of the efforts the Castros have been undertaking to subsidize the arts since they took power after the revolution in 1959. The school system produced a society that is culturally engaged and socially active and a dignified health-care system has been available to all Cubans for more than 50 years. The government blames the obvious poverty, lack of funds and slow economy on the aggressive embargo declared by the United States on its neighbors in 1960.
“The embargo is the main obstacle to Cuba’s progress, as the losses that it has provoked to our country, which are now more than 121,000 million dollars, demonstrate” Rodrigo Malmierca, the Cuban minister of foreign commerce, said at a press conference on Sunday just hours before Obama’s landing. Malmierca stressed on the fact that the Cuban government has never placed restrictions on any foreign investments, no matter the country of origin.
At a meeting with both Cuban and American entrepreneurs on Monday, President Obama began his speech by clearly calling for the end of the embargo, a decision that will ultimately fall on the US Chamber of Congress.
Obama also expressed the U.S. interest in helping Cuba connect to the web. The Caribbean island is in fact one of the most retrograde countries in the western hemisphere on the internet front. The great majority of Cubans can access the web only by buying hourly Internet cards for $2 and connect through one of the city’s open-air hotspots (hoping that it is not raining). During events such as Obama’s visit, the island flimsy Internet becomes easily overcrowded and most of the web-card time is wasted simply trying to log in. It is common to see foreigners lose their patience for not being able to access the net, whereas Cubans sport a remarkable Zen in not getting mad for the primitive and slow connection.
“Malia and Sasha do everything on their phone. The entire world does everything on its phone,” Obama said at the entrepreneurship summit on Monday. The President underlined the fact that American telephone and internet companies such as Verizon are ready to step in and give some much-needed connectivity to Cuba.
The love and interest for American culture can be easily witnessed simply by walking in the streets of Havana. The Stars and Stripes hangs from balconies and waves on the hoods of the almendrones, the old American cars that still work after serving for more than 50 years as taxis. Fathers take their children to the park to play baseball, Cuba’s national sport, and young people listen to the newest American hits. In fact, if it wasn’t for the myriad of portraits and graffiti of Ernesto Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the other heroes of the socialist revolution that can be spotted all around the island, one could almost believe to be walking in a Latino community on American soil.
As Cubans went through thick and thin to keep their way of living, turning cats into a delicacy during the “special period” in the nineties when Fidel Castro lost his most valuable ally with the fall of the Soviet Union, many see the end of the embargo closer on the horizon. The fierce commercial blockade has done little to ease the communists’ grip on power, and it now seems that America’s decision to start an embargo with one of its closest neighbors has failed. Miserably.
“Obama found a country that promotes peace and international solidarity,” the front page of the Granma, the most important newspaper in Cuba, read on Monday. “A country proud of its history and roots that defends its national identity and fights for a better future. With everyone and for the best of everyone.”
The US President addressed the Cuban people with a speech at El Gran Teatro de La Habana on Tuesday morning in front of President Raul Castro. Obama urged not to be afraid of change saying that he believes in the Cuban people and called once again for the end of the embargo.
“Todos somos Americanos,” Obama said before going to a game of baseball with President Castro. The Cuban National Team hosted the Tampa Bay Rays in an historic exhibition game at the Estadio Latinoamericano, where both the Cuban and the American national anthems were played in a suggestive moment.
The Cold War seemed a distant memory when Obama left Cuba on Tuesday afternoon, and the Cuban people never felt so close to the United States.
Even though the process that is promoting a better relationship between Cuba and the United States is welcomed by most, it is hard to ignore the human rights abuses that are entrenched in the Castros’ government. From political prisoners to freedom of speech and press, there is a lot of work that awaits Cuba if its government wants to be taken seriously on an international level.
On the other hand, it is long overdue that the Cubans desire to determine their own way of living is accepted as such and the US and Cuba work on their many cultural points of contact to better their relations once and for all. In a world that is sadly seeing rising walls, from Europe to the Mexican border, any bridge, for how small it may be, brings reviving fresh air with it.