he first images of the arrival of President Barack Obama and his family in Havana had the effect of an epiphany. But the epiphany wasn’t about what the first visit of an American president to the island in 88 years could mean to Cuba, the United States, and the international community. It was about what the visit could not mean.
Expectations seemed misguided from the start, which early contrasts proved. Michelle Obama’s charming sundress seemed out of place under Havana’s unwelcoming, stormy weather. The presence of the warmly smiling president and his wife couldn’t conceal the eloquent absence of President Raul Castro, who chose not meet the couple at the airport.
The scene seemed to match some of the most pessimist predictions among Cuban expatriates, who can’t be blamed for their doubts. Twenty-five years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that time, headlines suggesting “pivotal changes” and “transitions towards democracy” have popped up each time an influential dignitary set foot in Cuba. But it takes two to tango, and Cubans know it well.
Geographical, political and ideological perspectives aside, Obama’s visit rested on the approach to two central topics: a timetable for the lifting of the U.S. embargo and Cuba’s vision of human rights — the rights included in the 1966 International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which Cuba signed in 2008, but with a crucial reservation: “The Republic of Cuba hereby declares that it was the Revolution that enabled its people to enjoy the rights set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America and its policy of hostility and aggression against Cuba constitute the most serious obstacle to the Cuban people’s enjoyment of the rights set out in the Covenant. The rights protected under this Covenant are enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic and in national legislation. The State’s policies and programs guarantee the effective exercise and protection of these rights for all Cubans.”
The wording matters because Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution, adopted in 1976, states that citizen are entitled to freedom of speech and press in accordance with the objectives of a socialist society.
When the core of a problem is constitutional, as it is in Cuba, foreign leaders must temper their expectations. Though Obama couldn’t tango — the circumstance didn’t permit it — he still danced a fine solo. At the José Martí memorial — Martí (1853-1895) is Cuba’s national hero — Obama wrote in the guestbook: “It is a great honor to pay tribute to José Martí, who gave his life for the independence of his homeland. His passion for liberty, freedom, and self-determination lives on in the Cuban people today.”
Martí was a scholar and patriot who pushed for Cuba’s independence from Spain and resisted the U.S. policy of expansionism. But he also had deep intellectual affinity for U.S. 19th-century transcendentalist scholars. Martí lived much of his short life in the U.S. and fervently admired Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Obama’s mention of self-determination was not an accident, as a subsequent speech showed. While saying he favored the lifting of the embargo, he refused to use its existence as a cure-all. “Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” he said, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”
By constantly referring to Martí, Obama made sure to constantly underline that civil and political rights were not only universal, but also intrinsic to Cuban history.
Fidel Castro’s revolution in fact sprouted from the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista, a self-styled colonel who replaced Cuba’s still-youthful democratic process with an oppressive and repressive system. Though the 1940s and 1950s were a period of immense political instability in Latin America, the Batista dictatorship was still widely perceived as an aberration.
The Cuban Constitution adopted in 1940, before Batista began exercising total control, was based on democratic principles. It placed strong emphasis on individual rights and representative governing. So the notion that Cuba and the U.S. somehow differ culturally when it comes to their interpretation of civil and political rights has no historical or intellectual basis in fact.
Obama showed a deep awareness of these vital details. His rhetoric was carefully chosen and highly pointed. He emphasized humility and the value of self-reliance. He appealed to Cuba to “remove the shadow of history from our relationship.” He confirmed his willingness to lift the embargo. He stood firm in his defense of civil and political rights, emphasizing the importance of individual rights over those of the state. All that was needed from him, he provided.
The policies of a future U.S. president will no doubt have a dramatic impact on relationship between the two countries. But after Obama’s visit, just how that relationship develops is no longer about how the United States behaves.