Overview: Historic visit of US President to Cuba March 20-22

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TML Weekly (March 26) – President of Cuba Raúl Castro saw his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama off at José Martí International Airport in Havana on March 22 at the end of his three-day visit. Prensa Latina reports that both Presidents shook hands, reaffirming their willingness to continue the process towards normalization of relations which began on December 17, 2014. From Havana Obama flew to Argentina.

The visit is historic because it is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba since 1928 when Calvin Coolidge arrived aboard a U.S. warship to attend the 6th Pan American Conference, held under the sponsorship of an infamous local figure, Gerardo Machado. In fact, Obama is only the second U.S. president ever to visit Cuba, despite the island’s proximity to the U.S. mainland.

160321-CubaHavanaObamaVisit-CubaDebate-01The visit is also historic because on the soil of revolutionary Cuba Obama recognized the failure of the U.S. policy to overthrow the Cuban revolution. It is a recognition of the victory achieved by the Cuban people and the Cuban revolution whose principled defence of their sovereignty prevailed despite the murderous actions of successive U.S. administrations and the damage caused by the all-sided blockade. Not only did Obama repeatedly admit that the U.S. policy failed to achieve its aim of overthrowing the Cuban Revolution, but he admitted that the U.S. policy has caused damage to the Cuban people, for which he offered no apology. He remained silent about the terrorist attacks on the island, Cuban airlines and its leadership and suggested it is all before his time and in the past. He also in words recognized Cuba’s sovereign right to determine its own affairs. Lest he forget, it is a right Cuba will never forsake.

Reports on the visit

President Obama and his family are received at José Martí Airport in Havana by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parilla (left).

President Obama and his family are received at José Martí Airport in Havana by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parilla (left).

Barack Obama arrived on Sunday, March 20 with his family and an entourage including 40 members of Congress. On Monday, March 21 Obama paid tribute to Cuba’s National Hero, José Martí at the memorial dedicated to him at the Plaza of the Revolution, and held official talks with President Castro.[1]

At the meeting both Presidents talked about areas of mutual interest in which both nations, despite their differences, can make progress.

At the end of the meeting, both presidents made statements to the national and foreign press. Castro praised the progress made in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States but added that much more could be realized in Cuba-U.S. relations without the economic blockade.

“The blockade is the most significant impediment for the development of the Cuban people. That is why its elimination is essential for the normalization of relations,” said President Castro.

President Castro said that he expects that the dramatic shift in the relationship between the two countries will be permanent.

“We agree that we have a long and complex path ahead of us but what is important is that we have started to take steps to build a relationship of a new kind, one that has never existed before between Cuba and the United States,” Castro said.

“Today I affirm that we must practice the art of civilized coexistence, which means accepting and respecting differences and not make them the centre of our relations, but instead promote links that benefit both peoples and focus on what brings us closer and not on what separates us,” he added.

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The Cuban leader thanked the Obama administration for reiterating its position that the blockade be lifted, but said it has not been enough. “We oppose the double standard on human rights as well,” the Cuban President added.

Meanwhile, Obama thanked Castro for his hospitality, and said that it would have been “unimaginable” for more than 50 years to hear a U.S. president speak from Cuba.

Obama recognized the “extraordinary” achievements of Cuba in sectors such as health and education, while he reaffirmed steps taken by his administration to strengthen the countries’ ties despite the ongoing economic, commercial and financial blockade, imposed on Cuba for over half a century. In this context, he expressed that the future of Cubans will be decided by Cubans themselves and no one else. “Cuba has the right to be sovereign,” he pointed out.

After his meeting with Raúl Castro, Barack Obama spoke with Cuban and U.S. entrepreneurs, including representatives of the state and cooperative sectors, at a business forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of Cuba. As the two parties explored opportunities for commercial exchanges, Obama acknowledged the changes in Cuba as part of updating its economic and social model, which includes “a branch generating employment,” i.e. the opening of self-employment. Expressing his confidence in the potential of Cubans, Obama acknowledged the high level of education, the capacity to create and the wit of Cubans. He called these attractions which would draw investment from U.S. sectors, among them the Cuban-American community.

Obama said that his country wants to become a trading partner of Cuba, and pointed to the authorization of his government for the companies Cleber LLC, Starwood Hotels and Airbnb, which facilitates home rentals, to establish a presence in Cuba.

Cuba has first class physicians and nurses, the U.S. President said while referring to the remarks of a forum participant in the field of health care. Alluding to Cuba’s medical potential, he stated that “…we agreed with the Cuban government to establish and develop joint scientific cooperation in the medical field.”

“I have always believed that knowledge is something that has to be shared, no matter the political system we may have. Diseases are the same. Therefore, working together to find solutions is something very important,” he said.

160321-CubaHavanaObamaVisit-MINREX-03cropThe last day of Obama’s visit in Cuba was marked by a speech to representatives of Cuban civil society in the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso. Minutes before giving his speech Obama greeted the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso.

In their brief encounter, Obama expressed his admiration for Alonso’s work and his satisfaction to finally meet her in person, noted Pedro Simón Martínez, director of the National Museum of Dance, speaking to Granma.

For her part, Alonso, also Director of the National Ballet of Cuba, noted that the meeting “was marvelous, above all because he is the first figure I have received at the Gran Teatro since it was renamed in my honour,” for which she felt “very happy.”[2]

At a speech delivered at the Gran Teatro the U.S. President shared his vision of the new possibilities opening in the relations between both countries, and said that the American and Cuban people have shared values, besides being united by historical and cultural ties. Besides other things, he praised the Cuban internationalist doctors, whose solidarity assists disadvantaged populations in dozens of countries around the world. In addition to the recognition of the doctors, the result of a system of universal free public health, the U.S. President celebrated the Cuban talent, which in his words is derived from an educational system, similar to the health sector, “that values all boys and girls.”

Previously, the U.S. President welcomed the innovative and creative capacity of the Cuban people which, he said, is recognized and admired in the United States. Obama said that this prompted the decision of his administration to change the policy of isolation which the U.S. imposed on Cuba for more than half a century.

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Another factor was the recognition that such a policy, an important part of which is the economic, commercial and financial blockade, is not conducive to U.S. interests and does not reflect the historical and cultural ties that unite both countries.

Cold War policies make no sense in the twenty-first century, Obama stressed, while urging Cuban and U.S. citizens not to fear changes, but welcome them and help promote a civilized coexistence.

Following the meeting in the Gran Teatro, Obama and Castro attended a friendly match between Cuba’s national baseball team and the Tampa Bay Rays (representing U.S. Major League Baseball) the last event of the U.S. President’s visit. The Rays defeated the Cuban national team 4-1.[3]

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Before leaving Havana’s Latinoamericano stadium, Obama held a last brief interview with ESPN where he again admitted that the old U.S. policy to try to isolate Cuba was useless.

“In my opinion, if you spend half a century doing something and it does not work, you have to change something,” he said. He mentioned that he favoured increasing the possibilities for U.S. citizens to freely visit Cuba, something currently impossible due to the U.S. blockade. He also recognized that the isolation has only strengthened Cubans, whose talent, skills and potential he emphasized, as he had in the morning during his speech to the civil society organizations at the Gran Teatro.

This visit, the first by a U.S. President in 88 years, is considered an important step on the road towards the normalization of bilateral ties, for which the lifting of the blockade on the island and the return of the territory occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base will be determining factors.

Endnotes

1.Extract from Remarks by Barack Obama upon arriving in Cuba, March 22

“¡Hola desde Cuba!

[…]

“I’ve come to Havana to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. I’m here to bury the last vestige of the Cold War in the Americas and to forge a new era of understanding to help improve the daily lives of the Cuban people.

“There continue to be real and important differences between our governments, including profound differences on the way to promote safety, security, opportunity, and human rights. But there’s so much Americans and Cubans share – our cultures and passions, our hopes for the future, not to mention a love of baseball.

“I know one visit, and one president, cannot erase the decades of history that have left so many Cubans in poverty or exile. But sometimes the most important changes begin with the smallest step. I believe in the Cuban people and their desire to build a future of their own choosing. And I believe that changing the way we do things between our countries will, over time, help make that possible.

“So I’m looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from Cubans from all walks of life. And I’m confident that, working together with the Cuban people, our two countries can begin a new journey together that delivers progress for both our peoples.” (“We’ve Reached Havana,” Barack Obama, whitehouse.gov, March 21, 2016)

2.In September 2015, the Council of State made the extraordinary decision, in recognition of Alonso’s contribution to Cuban and global culture, to rename the establishment the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.

The playhouse located on Prado and San Rafael Streets, reopened its doors – after undergoing a three-year restoration – on January 1, 2016, with a gala by the National Ballet, in commemoration of the 57th anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution.

Cuba and the U.S. share a long history of ballet. Alicia and Fernando Alonso traveled to the United States in 1937 to continue their education and begin their careers as professional ballet dancers.

Years later, on October 28, 1948, Alicia fulfilled her dream of creating a professional ballet company in Cuba with the support of important figures from U.S. ballet.

In recent years the National Ballet has toured 38 U.S. cities, while numerous choreographers from that country have created works for the company’s repertory.

3.Transcript of Obama’s remarks to ESPN prior to attending the baseball game:

160322-CubaHavanaObamaVisit-CubaDebate-01“Today I’m taking Michelle and our girls out to a ballgame. That’s something Americans do all the time, but this game is something extraordinary.

“It’s the first exhibition game between a major league team – the Tampa Bay Rays – and the Cuban national team in 17 years. It’s only the second time an MLB team has visited Cuba since 1959. And most importantly, it’s a symbol of the bonds between Americans and Cubans despite decades of isolation – a small step that shows that our nations can begin to move beyond the divisions of the past and look toward a future of greater connections and cooperation between our countries.

“One of the things we share is our national pastimes – la pelota. As the quote from ‘Field of Dreams’ goes, ‘the one constant through all the years … has been baseball.’ That’s as true in America as it is in Cuba. Whether it’s the middle of an Iowa cornfield or the neighborhoods of Havana, our landscapes are dotted with baseball diamonds. Our kids grow up learning to run the bases and count balls and strikes. And many of our greatest ballplayers have taken the field together.

“Since 1959, about 100 players from Cuba have played for MLB clubs. Four Cuban-born players are enshrined in Cooperstown, including Cincinnati Reds great Tony Pérez. And just looking at one team – say, my Chicago White Sox – you can see Cuba’s imprint through the generations. One of the White Sox’s all-time greats, the late Minnie Miñoso, was born near Havana. José Contreras and Orlando ‘Duque’ Hernández helped bring a World Series trophy to the South Side back in 2005. And one of our best players today – and one of the game’s best sluggers – also comes from Cuba: first baseman José Abreu.

“Baseball in Cuba has played a part in America’s broader history as well. In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their farm club, including Jackie Robinson, spent spring training in Havana. Before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Jackie took the field at the famed Estadio Latinoamericano for exhibitions against both American and Cuban teams. It’s the same stadium where we’ll watch today’s game. And it will be an honor to watch with Jackie’s wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Sharon, who are here as part of our delegation.

“That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken – as people and as nations – and looking toward a better future. Because while I will not ignore the important differences between our governments, I came to Cuba to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.

“They’re the reason I cast off the failed, Cold War-era policy that left so many Cubans in conflict, exile and poverty in favor of a new course. They’re why our governments are now cooperating on health and education initiatives. They’re why we’re helping families connect by restoring direct commercial flights and mail service. And they’re why we’re expanding commercial ties and increasing the capacity of Americans to travel to do business in Cuba.

“These steps, and my visit here this week, are just small steps in a long road ahead. But I believe the American people and the Cuban people can make this journey as friends, as family and, yes, as baseball fans. ¡Pleibol!”

(With files from news agencies. Photos: MINREX, CubaDebate)

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