Articles - May 2016

Nurturing a New Era of Cuba-U.S. Relations: Obama Visit Moves Beyond the Shadows of the Cold War

. . . With Help From the Rolling Stones
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

A year ago it would have been almost impossible for the people of Cuba to imagine a week that began with a visit from the President of the United States and ended with a free concert by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones . . . with a major league-level baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team in between. There's no question that the Obama visit was an historic occasion, but there's also no doubt it was upstaged by the Stones. The rock group drew a multi-generational Cuban crowd along with a substantial contingent of international fans and history-in-the-making voyeurs estimated to exceed 500,000.

Nurturing a new relationship between Cuba and the United States is no easy task after more than 50 years of Cold War estrangement. Diplomatic initiative is curbed by the Castro brothers, serial Cuban Presidents Fidel and Raul, and the remnants of their repressive regime that seems determined to keep the Cuban Revolution alive with the United States as its enduring foe. The Obama overture to normalize relations with Cuba is fettered by the politics of the Cuban exile community in the United States. That exile community is itself divided. Some celebrate the new possibilities of visiting family and helping to rebuild the Cuban economy. Others cling to a nostalgic memory of a romanticized Cuba that almost never was, harbor a lasting resentment against the impact of the Castro Revolution on their parents' generation, and aspire to reclaim a new Cuba that harbors democracy, free enterprise and economic growth.

Cuba exists in a Cold War time warp offering a wormhole passage between 1959, when the regime of Fulgencio Batista was toppled by the Castro Revolution, passing through repeated ideological confrontations starting with the Bay of Pigs (1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and the persistent irritant of the American base at Guantanamo Bay. In this second decade of the 21st century, Fidel Castro has handed off the presidency to his brother Raul and retired from active political life . . . but has not gone away.

Relics of Another Era

Nowhere is that Cold War time warp more visible than in the 1950s vintage American cars that populate the streets of Havana. Want to see a '56 Chevy or reminisce about Studebakers? Go to Cuba.

These are not reproductions or restored junkers. These are the cars that were on the streets of Havana when the revolution came. Castro's Cuba cut off imports of U.S. vehicles in 1959, and the United States' economic embargo of the island made spare parts impossible to find.

Just as these vintage cars are relics of another time, President Obama suggested, so too is the adversarial relationship between the United States and Cuba a relic of another time. For him to come to Cuba, he noted, "We had to travel a great distance, over barriers of history and ideology; barriers of pain and separation. As the decades rolled by our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies. I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas."

Simply put, said Obama, "What the United States was doing was not working. A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century. Cuba doesn't have to be defined by being against the United States, any more than the United States should be defined by being against Cuba. Since 1959," Obama insisted, "we've been shadow boxers in this battle of geopolitics and personalities. I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it."

"Cultivo una Rosa Blanca" . . . "I Have a White Rose to Tend"

The bulk of the Obama visit to Cuba, despite the shadow of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, represented a cautious diplomatic tango with the new partners alternately seducing and distancing each other. Both President Raul Castro and President Obama came to their meetings with fixed agendas of concern. On the one hand, Castro insistently asserted Cuban sovereignty and reiterated two primary themes: end the American economic embargo of Cuba and the return of the "illegally occupied" Guantanamo Bay Naval Base from United States' to Cuban control. Still Castro returned to the common theme of the visit, "We should learn the art of co-existing with our differences in a civilized manner."

Obama, on the other hand, pointedly recalled a poem by Cuban literary and revolutionary hero José Marti, whose mantle of liberal humanity is claimed by both the Castro Revolution and its opponents. Entitled in translation, "I Have a White Rose to Tend," the poet offers a white rose, a symbol of love and concern, not only to his "true friend" but also to "the cruel one whose blows break the heart by which I live." Citing Marti and this poem was not only a gesture of reconciliation on the part of the United States but also an effort to touch the spiritual and nationalist heart of the Cuban people.

This was a theme of Obama's remarks throughout the Cuba visit – his abiding faith in the capabilities of the Cuban people, a faith expressed rhetorically in his words and symbolically in his actions. He repeatedly stressed the many things the Cuban and American people share – a love of sports, especially La Pelota (baseball); a deep faith nurtured for many by shared Catholic traditions; a profound love of family and a deep emotionally held sense of patriotism. He repeated the phrase, "I believe in the Cuban people," a delicate way of critiquing the excesses of the Castro regime, multiple times on multiple occasions.

Obama's schedule included not only the formal state visits with President Castro and his government ministers but also many visits intended to reach out to the Cuban people. Obama brought his wife, daughters and mother-in-law, along with an entourage of several hundred political, business and non-governmental leaders to Cuba. The schedule listed visits to Old Havana, including the central cathedral, a wreath-laying at the José Marti Memorial, meetings with small-scale Cuban business owners as well as with dissidents and civil society leaders, and that baseball game.

Michelle Obama, aided by journalist Soledad O'Brien, whose mother is Cuban, held a meeting to discuss girls' education and the First Lady's "Let Girls Learn" initiative with Cuban students. And, some of the most charming informal moments of the visit were provided by the Obama daughters, especially when Malia, soon to be heading off to college after growing up in the White House, used her Friends School Spanish language training to help her father through a series of off-the-cuff interactions.

It's Only Rock and Roll . . . Aged Cultural Diplomacy

While President Obama's initiatives to reset diplomatic, economic and cultural relations between the United States and Cuba were controversial in some circles, there is no question that the visit to Havana two days later by the Rolling Stones was a cultural tour de force.

Just as President Obama used Cuba's seemingly eternal fleet of vintage American cars as evidence of the Cuban people's ingenuity, the poster for the Rolling Stones Havana concert used the same icon – the big fins and multiple tail lights of a two-toned pink and cream vintage Chrysler – as the symbol for Mick Jagger and the gang coming to Cuba. Look closely, though, and you'll notice that the Rolling Stones logo has been substituted for the oversized taillights!

The Stones concert in Havana may not have been the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down. However, it certainly represented a cultural breakthrough indicative of the widening cracks of individual and cultural freedom that the Cuban regime is allowing to erode the overwhelming authority of the state. The free rock concert attracted an enormous crowd of several hundred thousand people and resoundingly brought to an end an era when the Castro regime denounced rock 'n' roll as subversive and decadent.

The Havana concert came at the end of the Stones "Olé" Latin America tour, which included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico. The opportunity for the Stones to play in Cuba represented a cultural landmark that emphasized Cuba's integration into the broader Latin American community.

The concert, like the energetically aging members of the band themselves, represented vintage Rolling Stones. The performance kicked off with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and included hits like "Midnight Rambler" and "Gimme Shelter," before wrapping up with "Brown Sugar." For the Cuban crowd it was a trip into what they hope the future of Cuba might be like.

Reflections on Change

Let the last word be President Obama's, "We can't force change on any particular country. Ultimately it has to come from within, then that is going to be a more useful strategy than the same kinds of rigid disengagement that for 50 years did nothing."

The Rolling Stones offered a more artistic version of that thought in their classic encores, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." The Cuban crowd loudly joined Mick Jagger in the latter refrain before he could get the words out of his mouth. Of such things is a new diplomatic relationship made.

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