James Werrell

Will Obama’s policy change lead to change in Cuba?

President Barack Obama urged Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit to the communist nation as a moment to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas.”
President Barack Obama urged Cubans to look to the future with hope, casting his historic visit to the communist nation as a moment to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas.” AP

Many Americans, especially those old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, tend to see Cuba in black and white, both literally and figuratively.

We can recall the black-and-white pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara from the 1960s when the Cuban revolution still was young enough to be seen as a potential boon to the Cuban people. We remember the pictures of idealistic Americans who traveled to Cuba to help with the sugar cane harvest.

All that, of course, came before the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion launched by President John F. Kennedy and the 13-day standoff over Russian missiles on the island 90 miles off the coast of Florida that brought us the closest we have ever come to nuclear annihilation. The stark black-and-white political hostility – Freedom vs. Marxism – that erupted from these confrontations would cement U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba for the next 50 years.

Ironically, though, a large group of Americans also nurse a nostalgic black-and-white view of a pre-revolutionary Cuba few of us actually experienced, one born of old musicals, photos of “Papa” Hemingway standing next to a recently vanquished marlin, accounts of smoky nightclubs and gambling joints, rum by the barrel and friendly, carefree Cubans. This dreamy view of an island paradise intentionally disregards the violence, the secret police and midnight assassinations carried out by the Batista regime.

But relations between the U.S. and Cuba are changing fast and probably irrevocably, due almost entirely to unilateral policy changes made by President Barack Obama. The president has engineered a thaw with Cuba that includes allowing Americans to travel more freely to the island, establishing embassies in Washington and Havana, arranging discussions about future business exchanges, talks about allowing Cuban baseball players to compete in the U.S. and whispers about eventually lifting the embargo of 1962.

Obama highlighted the policy shift with a trip to Cuba this week that included a meeting with Cuba’s leader, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, and a speech to the Cuban people that was broadcast live across the island. Obama praised Cuba’s rulers for, among other things, the island’s health programs and universal education system. He also lauded the vitality and resilience of the Cuban people.

But he didn’t mince words about Cuba’s continuing assault on human rights, its incarceration of dissidents, its unwillingness to foster free-market economic reforms and its failure to embrace democratic elections. In short, while progress has been made, much remains to be done before Cuba is truly free.

In light of that, it’s not hard to understand why some Cubans who have suffered under the Castros’ rule are irked by Americans who are eager to get to Cuba before it is “spoiled.” What, they ask, you mean you want to get here while we still are quaintly poverty-stricken, still desperate for an infusion of foreign currency, still living and working in buildings that are about to collapse?

Well, yeah. If those of us who still harbor a romantic view of an older Cuba are honest, we’ll admit we want to visit the island before the developers get there and turn it into a version of Disneyland.

We want to get there before all those vintage cars are replaced by new ones, while you still can drink daiquiris in dark little bars, while the crumbling architecture still maintains the look of the old Havana, while families still have small restaurants they operate out of their homes, while the Cuba of our imagination still exists.

Selfish and typically American? In a way, perhaps. We can turn a blind eye to suffering as long as we can convince ourselves were are experiencing the “real” Cuba.

But let’s not go too far. Any American who has witnessed the half-century standoff between the U.S. and Cuba must be stirred by the idea that change is coming, that the geriatric authoritarians are tottering, that the Cuban people are on the verge of attaining real liberty.

While regime change won’t happen overnight, we can hope that Obama’s outreach represents a genuine historical moment that marks the beginning of a path to a freer Cuba. And perhaps more travel back and forth between Cuba and the U.S. will help speed the spread of democracy on the island.

With luck, the old cars will be there forever. The Castros won’t.

James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.