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#CubaNow Briefing: ‘Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca…’

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Mar 25, 2016


Earlier this year we expressed support for the idea of President Obama visiting Cuba to speak to the Cuban people directly. It would be, we argued, an “unprecedented chance for the leader of the free world to promote core American values” on the Island.

But even we were surprised at just how unprecedented the trip would turn out to be.

There was the warm (if wet) reception that the president received in Havana from Cubans eager to see the first American president on the Island in nearly 90 years.

There was the press conference, where the world saw one president comfortable taking questions from a free press and one who…was not.

There was the president’s meeting with Cuban dissidents, including those who disagreed with the decision to open up relations.

And then there was the speech.

By now you may have already seen Obama give what was without a doubt one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency on Tuesday. Its message managed to penetrate not just across the Island but in South Florida, an effect it would not have achieved without the respect demonstrated to generations of Cubans on both sides of the straits who endured decades of separation and sacrifice. And by successfully delivering an address that acknowledged that past while looking towards Cuba’s future, the president made a compelling case for the policy of engagement that started—but will not end—with him.

“Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down -- but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new. El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano.”

In his remarks, the president showed how it was possible to “extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people” without casting aside the painful memories of the past or the challenges of the present. It was a speech that spoke to both the common values our countries share and the deep differences that remain. And it was a speech that credited what Cuba had been able to achieve while calling on its government to end its oppressive practices and instead respect “the free and open exchange of ideas.”

The address succeeded precisely because it represented a clean and absolute break from the regime change rhetoric of the past, conveying an underlying tone of respect and reconciliation. Had Obama chosen the tone of castigation and demagoguery that has so often dominated the rhetoric between the U.S. and Cuba, he would have failed in his mission to build a bridge between our two countries. Instead, the Cuban people saw an American president speak honestly and openly about the challenges of democracy and how our system gives us the means to evolve and grow. They heard him speak about human rights as an issue for not just Cuba to improve on, but the U.S. as well. What they saw—and what became that much more difficult for the Cuban government to dismiss—was a president unafraid to debate the strengths and weaknesses of his own political system. And they heard a powerful argument as to why democracy did not have to be an upheaval of their way of life but an elevation of what they have already built:

“The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution -- America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world -- those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy. Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not. And we -- like every country -- need the space that democracy gives us to change. It gives individuals the capacity to be catalysts to think in new ways, and to reimagine how our society should be, and to make them better.”

As one entrepreneur told our executive director Ric Herrero after the speech, it felt as if the president had opened up the Cuban people to not just the United States but “the entire world.” Another expressed embarrassment that it had taken a visiting head of state to tell the Cuban people that their future was in their own hands. To quote UNPACU’s José Daniel Ferrer, “it was a light in the dark.”

Perhaps most important of all, Obama laid out a concrete vision for a brighter future without forgetting the past. Some critics of normalization—on both shores—have expressed frustration that Obama opened his remarks by stating that he had come to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” And they are right to insist we not turn a blind eye to the history between us. But we can do so without it coming at the expense of the Cuban people. As the president said, “I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

The full effects of this speech and Obama’s visit will not be known for some time, but what we do know is that the discourse around U.S.-Cuba relations has been irrevocably changed on both sides. There is still an embargo to lift and the Cuban government’s worst practices will not disappear overnight. But the claim made by critics like Sen. Ted Cruz that Obama would “essentially act as an apologist” has been obliterated by one of the most stirring defenses of democracy in recent memory. Obama laid out not just how to address our differences, but a way to build on our renewed ties in a spirit of trust building, reconciliation, and most critical of all, respect.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Cubans And Cuban Americans React To President Obama’s Visit

Cubans Packed The Street To Greet Obama: “Welcome To Cuba! We Like You!” “Shouts of ‘U.S.A.!’ and ‘Obama!’ echoed over the stone plazas as President Obama and his family made their way around rain-slicked courtyards in Old Havana on Sunday evening, savoring the adulation of Cubans welcoming him warmly despite a driving rain as he began a history-making visit. ‘Welcome to Cuba! We like you!’ a man shouted as Mr. Obama’s entourage passed. Above, a woman applauded and hooted from her wrought-iron balcony. Later, a motorcade including the presidential limousine, adorned for the first time with Cuban and American flags, snaked through narrow streets where elated residents, their clothing soaked from waiting in the rain, hoisted cellphones and cheered the first sitting American leader to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years.” [New York Times, “Cubans Pack the Streets for a Glimpse of President Obama,” 3/20/16]

Cuban Carmen Diaz: “It Totally Satisfies My Soul To Be Able To Have Lived To See This Moment.” “All around the city on Sunday, Mr. Obama’s name could be heard — before he arrived, when bartenders on a hotel rooftop thought they saw his entourage; when he landed, as groups of Cubans stood under verandas by the sea; and in homes across the city, where families watched him wave and smile on Cuban television. ‘It totally satisfies my soul to be able to have lived to see this moment, a moment I never thought I would have seen,’ said Carmen Diaz, 70, watching Mr. Obama’s arrival from her daughter’s living room. ‘I feel this visit of an American president to Cuba is being done in the most elegant way possible.’” [New York Times, “Cubans Pack the Streets for a Glimpse of President Obama,” 3/20/16]

Cubans Watching President Obama’s Speech Described It As A Turning Point. “Of all the U.S. president’s activities during his groundbreaking visit to Cuba, the speech was his best chance to speak directly to Cubans, both here on the island and abroad. It wasn’t delivered in public, but it was broadcast in its entirety on Cuban state television, into the homes of many Cubans who, like Limas, talked about this visit as a turning point in their lives. The family hushed and seemed to hold their breath when Obama’s words directly challenged their leaders, especially as the U.S. president called for democratic elections and urged President Raul Castro not to ‘fear the different voices of the Cuban people.’ They admired his willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings and imperfections of the U.S. political system, and to have confidence in it anyway.” [Washington Post, “Watching a Cuban family watching Obama,” 3/22/16]

Obama’s Speech Made A “Powerful Impression” On Cuban Family, Pro-Government Pundits Less So. “As the U.S. president finished, he was soon replaced on state television by pro-government commentators pointing out that voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections is barely 50 percent. They started picking apart other elements Obama’s speech. Hernandez wouldn’t have it. ‘Turn that off,’ he said, waving at the television. The room went quiet again, and the family lingered for a few minutes, talking about the speech. Obama’s appeal to young Cubans made a powerful impression on Limas, she said. Maybe it would persuade some of them to stay and not leave. ‘I wish this [had] happened earlier,’ she said. ‘Maybe there wouldn’t be so many deaths at sea.’” [Washington Post, “Watching a Cuban family watching Obama,” 3/22/16]

UNPACU’s José Daniel Ferrer: Obama’s Speech Was “A Light In The Dark.” “Leading Cuban dissidents who met with Mr. Obama at the American Embassy after the speech described his visit as a transformational moment. ‘It was the speech we and millions of Cubans yearned to hear,’ José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said in an email. ‘It was a light in the dark.’” [New York Times Editorial, “Mr. Obama’s Honest Message in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

Cubans Stunned To See Obama Criticize The Cuban Government On Cuban Soil. “María Lastres sat nervously, bent over, her leg bouncing. Her husband, Jesús Magán, could hardly keep still. President Barack Obama was on TV, just a few miles from their modest Havana apartment, speaking truths to the Cuban government — on Cuban soil. They broke their rapt attention only to yelp, again and again, Cubans’ favorite interjection — ‘¡Ñó!’ — and to spontaneously applaud in unadultered astonishment. ‘Who would have thought we’d see this,’ Magán said, agape. ‘I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!’” [Miami Herald, “What a Havana family saw as it watched President Obama,” 3/22/16]

Cuban-American Attorney Pedro Freyre: “A Perfect Balance Between Offering Peace And Reconciliation But Still Challenging The Cuban Government.” “In the poem, Martí offers a white rose to the ‘cruel one whose blows break the heart with which I live.’ ‘That poem is the essence of peace-making,’ said Miami attorney Pedro Freyre, who was in the audience at the ornate theater. ‘It says I give a white rose to my friend and to my enemy.’ ‘I thought it was a brilliant speech — a perfect balance between offering peace and reconciliation but still challenging the Cuban government,’ said Freyre, whose clients include a number of U.S. companies trying to do business with Cuba. It wasn’t lost on the Cuban-Americans in the audience that exiles figured so importantly in the speech. After thanking the Cuban government and people for their kindness, Obama immediately launched into their story — the pain of exile and their ultimate success in their new country. ‘In the United States, there is a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build,’ Obama said. ‘It’s called Miami.’ ‘I’m particularly grateful for the recognition,’ Freyre said.” [Miami Herald, “Obama leaves Cuba asking island to embrace change,” 3/22/16]

#CubaNow’s Ric Herrero: Obama Embraced A Debate Over Differences But In The Spirit Of Reconciliation. “Ric Herrero, director of CubaNow, which supports engagement with Cuba and lifting the embargo, was also enthusiastic about the speech. ‘I think it’s one of the most momentous speeches ever delivered on Cuban soil. I’m still on a high,’ he said. ‘It was great to see him come here and embrace a debate over our differences yet do it in the spirit of reconciliation,’ he said. ‘It’s a model I think we should all follow.’” [Miami Herald, “Obama leaves Cuba asking island to embrace change,” 3/22/16]

Cuban English Teacher Coro Antich: Obama’s Speech Might Open The Eyes A Bit Of People Who Aren’t” On His Wavelength Yet. “Ms. Coro Antich, who augments a meager pension teaching English to college-age Cubans, said she liked Mr. Obama’s vision of the future. But she was saddened that many of Cuba’s young people did not see a future for themselves on the island. ‘They are overwhelmed,’ she said of the youths she knows. ‘Most want to leave, and every time one leaves, I suffer.’ Like many other Cubans, Ms. Coro Antich said, she appreciated Mr. Obama’s respectful attitude toward the island. ‘I like very much looking toward the future, but you can’t forget the past,’ she said. ‘We have been forced to defend ourselves for such a long time. Our culture and identity are created by our past.’ Ms. Coro Antich said she was already on President Obama’s wavelength, but that the speech ‘might open the eyes a bit of people who aren’t.’” [Wall Street Journal, “Obama’s Speech Stirs the Spirit in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

UNPACU’s Ovidio Martin Castellanos: Obama Sent The Clear Message That The Cuban People Are In Charge Of Their Own Futures. “Ovidio Martin Castellanos of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a prominent opposition group whose leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer, was among the dissidents who met with Mr. Obama, said the U.S. president sent a clear message for change, “but that it is in the hands of the Cuban people.” “It’s the Castro regime that doesn’t want to accept change.” Mr. Castellanos added. “They are between the sword and the wall.” [Wall Street Journal, “Obama’s Speech Stirs the Spirit in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

WLRN’s Tim Padgett: Obama’s Visit Showed The US Could Affect Positive Change In Cuba And Draw A Stark Contrast With The Castro Government. “No one denies that Cuban exile anger is justified. But if you want the U.S. to influence change in Cuba, it seems more effective to have a magnetic American president making pro-democracy points inside Havana than it is to beam in tired anti-communist pamphleteering from Miami. That couldn’t have been more obvious on Monday, when Obama and Castro held one of the more awkward press conferences in hemispheric history…It was just that stark contrast – a youthful, forward-looking Obama skating diplomatic figure eights around an entrenched, geriatric Castro – that Cuba’s communist leaders feared most about Obama’s visit. And, most of all, about his speech.” [WLRN, “Is Reasoning In Havana More Effective Than Railing From Miami? Sí,” 3/23/16]

Daniel Larison: Obama Deserves Credit For Ending A Policy That Might Have Otherwise Continued On Autopilot. “Obama’s speech did challenge the Cuban government in a few areas, and the president’s decision to speak out in favor of rights of free speech, assembly, and peaceful protest on Cuban soil should leave hawkish dead-enders with little to complain about. But the president also emphasized that the isolation of our two countries should be viewed as an aberration, and stressed the benefits that both countries could enjoy from closer ties. As Obama said, a ‘policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century,’ and it made no sense to continue it. Ending that isolation was in the best interests of both countries, and the president deserves credit for stopping a failed policy that might have continued on autopilot for another decade if he hadn’t made a point of changing it.” [The American Conservative, “Obama’s Visit to Cuba,” 3/23/16]

Obama’s Speech Was Striking In Its Recognition Of Racism And Disenfranchisement In Both Countries. “Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday, in an ornate Spanish colonial-style hall in Havana, was not only strikingly personal. It was also an unusually direct engagement with race, a critical and unresolved issue in Cuban society that the revolution was supposed to have erased. For many Cubans, Mr. Obama’s comments were striking for their acknowledgment of racism in both countries. They served as a reminder that their particular kinship with him — as reflected in dozens of conversations and responses to his history-making three-day visit this week — involves not just policy, but also identity. ‘It’s a revolution,’ said Alberto González, 44, a baker who was one of the few Afro-Cubans to attend a discussion with the president about entrepreneurship on Monday. ‘It’s a revolution for everyone with a background descended from Africa.’” [New York Times, “Cuba Says It Has Solved Racism. Obama Isn’t So Sure.” 3/23/16]

Afro-Cubans Pointed Out That Despite Cuba’s Desegregation, Its Government Did Not Reflect Its Demographics. “Defensiveness has long hovered over the subject of race, in part because Fidel Castro said shortly after the revolution that racism had been solved, making the subject taboo. The discomfort, in part, came from pride: Some of the revolution’s most visible achievements involved ending institutionalized segregation, at beach clubs, at schools and in neighborhoods where the homes of wealthy white Cubans who fled were often given to Cubans of color. Socialized medicine and education also helped create a society more deeply shaped by interracial interactions and marriages than the United States. And yet, Cuba is no more postracial than anywhere else. Many Afro-Cubans here and abroad have been quick to point out that the presence of Mr. Obama, the first black president of the United States, only highlights that the Cuban government does not reflect the demographics of their country.” [New York Times, “Cuba Says It Has Solved Racism. Obama Isn’t So Sure.” 3/23/16]

71-Year-Old Cuban Felipe García: “Obama Has Brought Incredible Joy To Cuba Because He Has Done What No U.S. President Has Done Before.” “In Cuba, many praised the fact that the American president spoke of the need to end the embargo. ‘It was very good,’ said Havana resident Aurora Valdez. ‘Cubans are interested in peace with the other countries, particularly to end the embargo. With no embargo Cuban people would be able to improve their lives with their own initiative.’ But for others, what resonated was that an American president had spoken to them, in their country. ‘We're here spontaneously, since we saw him on TV we want to see him in person,’ said Felipe García, 71, who was out hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama before he departed the island. ‘Obama has brought incredible joy to Cuba because he has done what no U.S. president has done before.’” [NBC News, “Cubans, Cuban Americans Share Their Emotions After Obama’s Speech,” 3/22/16]

NBC News: Cuban Americans’ Reactions To Obama’s Speech Reflecting The Changing Views And Times. “For many Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits, President Barack Obama's words tugged at emotions after decades of exile, family separations, deaths and distance. Perhaps more than anything, reactions also reflected changing views amid changing times. In Miami, Raquel García Lozano, a Cuban-American emergency-room doctor, said she was ‘very moved’ by Obama's speech. ‘I don't agree with him in a lot of things but in this case - 100 percent,’ she said. García Lozano, who came to the U.S. in the 1970s when she was 9 years old, said she did not always believe in engagement. ‘I have changed my thoughts through the years.’ That changing worldview was encapsulated in Obama's speech.” [NBC News, “Cubans, Cuban Americans Share Their Emotions After Obama’s Speech,” 3/22/16]

Editorial Reaction To Obama In Cuba

Miami Herald Editorial: Obama’s Speech Paid Respects To Cuban Exiles, Called Out Oppression Directly. “Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on regarding the administration’s new relationship with Cuba, President Obama’s speech in Havana on Tuesday will stand as one of his best. It was thoughtful, it used reverse psychology and, it did not forget Miami’s exile community. With kindness, not a big stick, President Obama told the Cuban people on television and Raúl Castro to his face that it’s imperative that he stop repressing opposing voices, stop stifling free speech and stop banning the Internet. Its tone was a stroke of genius. The Castros must be fuming — tricked by American ingenuity.” [Miami Herald Editorial, “Cuban exiles got respect in Obama’s Havana speech,” 3/22/16]

NYT Editorial: Obama Made A Compelling Case That The U.S. And Cuba’s Ties Were More Powerful Than Their Differences. “Mr. Obama made a compelling case that the ties that bind Cuba and the United States are more powerful than their differences. ‘I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,’ Mr. Obama said Tuesday morning at the Grand Theater of Havana, drawing applause. He spoke movingly about the human toll the acrimony between the two governments has taken on Cuban exiles and those who remained on the island. He hailed Cuba’s rich culture and the tenacity and resourcefulness of its people.” [New York Times Editorial, “Mr. Obama’s Honest Message in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

NYT Editorial: Obama’s Speech Tactfully Made The Case For A Free And Open Exchange Of Ideas In Cuba. “His message included a healthy dose of criticism and a call for change, which were delivered with both force and tact. He said President Raúl Castro, who attended the speech, ‘need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people — and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.’ He said ‘sustainable prosperity’ in the 21st century requires the ‘free and open exchange of ideas.’ Mr. Obama said that the United States was not beyond reproach, but that in a democracy, freedom to choose a nation’s leaders and freedom to speak without fear can lead to change. There is too much money in American politics, he acknowledged, and America still wrestles with the legacy of slavery and segregation. ‘But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better,’ he said.” [New York Times Editorial, “Mr. Obama’s Honest Message in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

El Nuevo Herald Editorial: “Obama, Al ‘Extender Una Mano Amiga Al Pueblo Cubano’, Como Dijo En Su Discurso, Haya Subrayado Una Vez Más El Valor De La Democracia Frente A La Opresión Del Totalitarismo.” “Ninguna sociedad es perfecta. Pero la democracia abre una vía para que los distintos segmentos que integran la sociedad expongan sus opiniones, sus protestas, sus deseos y sus sueños, y esos distintos segmentos puedan debatir y llegar a un acuerdo. Esa es la vía que no existe en Cuba desde hace décadas, y la que buscan los cubanos que protestan en las calles, pese a la represión de la policía, o que se juegan la vida en una huida desesperada hacia tierras de libertad. Castro lo sabe muy bien, y tiene que haberle molestado mucho que Obama, al ‘extender una mano amiga al pueblo cubano’, como dijo en su discurso, haya subrayado una vez más el valor de la democracia frente a la opresión del totalitarismo.” [El Nuevo Herald Editorial, “Obama le dice la verdad al pueblo de Cuba,” 3/22/16]

Chicago Tribune Editorial: Change In Cuba Will Require Patience And Ending The U.S. Embargo. “So let's be patient on how quickly change will come to Cuba: Drawing out a reluctant adversary takes time. After a 50-year standoff rooted in the Cold War, the U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations. As Obama concludes his historic three-day visit to the island on Tuesday, the two sides move on to the tricky, long-term business of daily engagement. With the Obama trip comes a significant loosening of restrictions on travel and other forms of contact. Airlines, including Chicago-based United, propose regular service. American tourists will visit. U.S.-owned hotels will open. Google has a deal to expand Internet service. In these and many other ways, America stands to influence Cuba's future. This is big progress. The next important step will be lifting the U.S. economic embargo put in place after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. That requires patience, too. Scrapping the embargo takes an act of Congress, which will not happen in a presidential election year.” [Chicago Tribune Editorial, “Nixon, Clinton and Obama. Beijing, Hanoi and Havana.” 3/21/16]

Palm Beach Post Editorial: Congress Should Give Younger Cubans A Shot At Change By Lifting The Embargo. “We shouldn’t expect major change overnight. But opening things up will give hope to a talented, hardworking and industrious people — particularly a generation of highly educated younger Cubans who grow increasingly frustrated for change. These are the same young Cubans who hold Obama in such high regard and are pinning their hopes for the future on his efforts to persuade a reluctant Congress. There are no guarantees that lifting the embargo will bring about the change our leaders seek. But after 50 years, don’t the Cuban people deserve a shot at it?” [Palm Beach Post Editorial, “End trade embargo to see real change in Cuba,” 3/22/16]

Sacramento Bee Editorial: “It Makes Less And Less Sense To Continue The Cold War With Cuba.” “The Cuban people are thirsty for social and economic progress, and the regime can’t stop it. And while some Republicans and Cuban American hard-liners oppose Obama’s moves, it makes less and less sense to continue the Cold War with Cuba. He used his executive powers to re-establish diplomatic relations, including reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana. But only the Republican-controlled Congress can lift the trade embargo. That isn’t going to happen – and shouldn’t – until Cuba expands political, economic and social freedoms. Obama wants this opening to Cuba to be part of his legacy, but it’s not safely set in stone. His term ends in January. Castro has pledged to step down in 2018. It’s up to the next president and next Cuban leader to build on the progress so far.” [Sacramento Bee Editorial, “Obama’s historic opening to Cuba,” 3/22/16]

USA Today Editorial: Obama’s Trip To Cuba Is Truly Historic. “A lot of things are called historic, but President Obama’s trip to Cuba truly is. Never mind that Cuba’s economy is smaller than the District of Columbia's, or that the days of it posing a security threat are long over. Cuba is a country of immense symbolic importance for Americans, its image freighted with memories of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 1962 missile crisis, and the ongoing exodus of Cubans seeking a better life in America. For nearly 60 years, its government has done two things exceptionally well: repress its own people and make a mockery of U.S. efforts to compel change through economic sanctions. And that's what makes Obama's trip so important.” [USA Today Editorial, “Obama’s historic trip to Cuba,” 3/21/16]

“This Trip Will Provide Momentum To Make These Changes Stick And To Make Further Reforms Inevitable.” “[Obama] cannot unilaterally lift sanctions embedded in a number of laws dating to the early 1960s. But he has made some much needed policy adjustments. Most recently, he loosened restrictions on banking and travel. This trip will provide momentum to make these changes stick and to make further reforms inevitable. The mere presence of a U.S. president in Havana is startling, refreshing, novel. No president has been there since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, a time when presidents visited few countries and went by battleship if they did. For those and other reasons, this visit will garner far more attention than a typical foray.” [USA Today Editorial, “Obama’s historic trip to Cuba,” 3/21/16]

The “Obama Effect” In Cuba

AFP: Analysts Saw Obama’s Speech As Undermining Cuban Government’s Rhetoric Against The U.S. “Analysts said that by coming in peace and calling for full restoration of neighborly relations, Obama undermined the decades-old logic that helped keep the Cuban government in power as a self-declared bastion against US imperialism. And if the once unimaginable visit could be successful, ‘why not many other things?’ Hare asked. ‘The visit fuels the expectation of all Cubans that urgent change is needed in economic opportunities and the suffocating government controls. Old revolutionary rhetoric and blaming the US embargo for everything is no longer enough.’” [AFP, “Obama leaves Cuba, but Obama effect remains,” 3/22/16]

Obama Managed To Speak Directly To The Cuban People In A State Where Government Controlled The Media. “Obama's other principal achievement, analysts say, is having been allowed to speak directly to the Cuban people -- a first in a relationship long characterized by lack of communication or propaganda. That he managed to get a message across in a state where the government controls all the media was even more groundbreaking.” [AFP, “Obama leaves Cuba, but Obama effect remains,” 3/22/16]

The Speech

The Atlantic: At The Heart Of Obama’s Address Was A Call For Greater Freedom For The Cuban People. “At the heart of his address was an exhortation for the Castro regime to allow the Cuban people more freedom—a polite but direct push that Obama tried to deliver as a new friend rather than an old adversary. ‘I've made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba,’ he said. ‘What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people.’ Obama received some of his biggest applause when he called on the U.S. Congress to lift the decades-long embargo on commerce with Cuba. But Castro and much of the crowd sat quietly through what followed. ‘Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba,’ the president said. Obama continued with a recitation of human rights that he said were universal.” [The Atlantic, “Obama in Cuba: Time to ‘Leave the Past Behind.’” 3/22/16]

Reuters: Obama’s Speech Made An “Impassioned Call For Democracy.” “U.S. President Barack Obama challenged Cuba's Communist government with an impassioned call for democracy and economic reforms on Tuesday, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the island. Taking the stage at Havana’s Grand Theater with President Raul Castro in attendance, Obama said he was in Cuba to extend a hand of friendship and ‘bury the last remnant’ of the Cold War in the Americas. But he also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness in a one-party state where the government stifles dissent, Internet access is low and the media is in state hands.” [Reuters, “Obama challenges Communist-led Cuba with call for democracy,” 3/22/16]

Reuters: “Obama Threw Down A Very Public Gauntlet” Arguing That Cubans Could Not Realize Their Full Potential Without Lifting Oppression On The Island. “His speech was the high point of a 48-hour trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution, and work to normalize relations. Nonetheless, Obama threw down a very public gauntlet to Castro, saying Cubans cannot realize their full potential if his government does not allow change and relax its grip on Cuban politics and society.” [Reuters, “Obama challenges Communist-led Cuba with call for democracy,” 3/22/16]Obama: Even Lifting The Embargo Wouldn’t Solve Everything If Cuba Didn’t Open Its Economy And Political System. “But he made clear in the speech that the engagement could not be successful unless Cuba evolves, opening its economy and its political system. ‘It’s time to lift the embargo, but even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential, and over time the youth will lose hope.’” [New York Times, “Obama, in Havana Speech, Says Cuba Has Nothing to Fear From U.S.,” 3/22/16]

The Press Conference

Obama Prodded A “Clearly Uncomfortable” Raúl Castro Into Taking Questions From Journalists. “The speech was a striking element of a presidential visit packed with extraordinary firsts: an American president speaking directly to Cuba’s people, in remarks that were broadcast live, as Cuba’s own president looked on. It came a day after the two leaders had another remarkable encounter, holding frank talks at the Palace of the Revolution and then spending 55 minutes answering questions from the news media. Mr. Obama prodded Mr. Castro, clearly uncomfortable being placed on the spot by journalists, to engage in a give-and-take that is a hallmark of American democracy.” [New York Times, “Obama, in Havana Speech, Says Cuba Has Nothing to Fear From U.S.,” 3/22/16]

Obama Pushed Castro Outside Of His Comfort Zone In Rare News Conference. “There were awkward moments as well, with both presidents pushing each other outside their comfort zones. Mr. Obama, who was determined to mark the occasion with a news conference — something Mr. Castro seldom if ever does — prodded the Cuban leader to submit to journalists’ questions. After Mr. Obama finished answering a question from Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, he urged Mr. Castro to do so as well. ‘It’s up to you,’ Mr. Obama told Mr. Castro. ‘She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief answer.’” [New York Times, “Cuba Meeting Between Obama and Castro Exposes Old Grievances,” 3/21/16]

Castro “Bristled” At Being Asked About Political Prisoners By Cuban-American Reporter Jim Acosta, Claimed There Were None. “Cuban President Raúl Castro bristled during his joint conference with President Barack Obama when asked about the issue of political prisoners in the communist country. ‘Did you ask if we had political prisoners? Did you ask if we had political prisoners?’ Castro said, in response to a question from CNN correspondent Jim Acosta at the Havana meeting. Castro then said he would release all of the political prisoners if provided ‘a list’ of them. ‘Just mention the list. What political prisoners?’ Castro asked. ‘Give me a name or names or when after this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight ends.’” [Politico, “Castro to CNN’s Jim Acosta: What political prisoners?”, 3/21/16]

Ben Rhodes: We Actually Give The Cuban Government Lists Of Political Prisoners On A Regular Basis. “[On] Monday evening, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said he gives lists of political prisoners to the Cuban government regularly, noting the release of the 53 prisoners in 2015. ‘There are certainly additional prisoners whose names we raise on a regular basis,’ he said, but added that long-term detentions have started to decrease and the Cuban government has focused more on short-term detention. ‘There is very rarely an engagement in which we’re not raising either lists or individual cases. That will certainly be the case going forward,’ Rhodes said.” [Politico, “Castro to CNN’s Jim Acosta: What political prisoners?”, 3/21/16]

Washington Post: Obama Seemed To Relish “Jarring Juxtaposition” Of Joint Press Conference. “The event was marked by a jarring juxtaposition of diplomatic formality and public jousting, as Castro responded to questions from American reporters by either ignoring them or dismissing them as misguided. At one point, he challenged a U.S. journalist to ‘give me a name’ of any alleged political prisoner here. For his part, Obama seemed to relish the opportunity to display his comfort in discussing both the things they agreed on, and those they did not. The public exchange was virtually unprecedented in Cuba.” [Washington Post, “Raúl Castro, Obama spar on human rights, Guantanamo, views of U.S. and Cuba,” 3/21/16]

President Obama Meets With Dissidents And Entrepreneurs

President Obama Met With Dissidents, Including Those That Disagreed With His Policy. “The dissidents and civil society leaders who met with President Obama on Tuesday at the United States Embassy in Havana included independent journalists, a women’s group leader, a lawyer and a gay rights advocate. At least three of the people who attended the hour and 45 minute session are considered conservative — meaning they disagree with Mr. Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Some of them have served long prison sentences, and at least one is known for frequent hunger strikes.” [New York Times, “Obama Spends Almost 2 Hours With Cuban Dissidents,” 3/22/16]

Obama Praised Dissidents For “Extraordinary Courage.” “President Barack Obama is praising a group of Cuban dissidents for showing ‘extraordinary courage.’ Obama is meeting with a group of about a dozen activists at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He is noting that the group represented various causes and some in the room have been detained by government authorities – ‘some in the past, some very recently.’ Some have broad concerns about democracy and ‘the ability to speak freely, worship freely.’ He says: ‘It requires, often times, great courage to be active in civic life here in Cuba.’ The group includes journalist Miriam Celaya, attorney Laritza Diversent and activist Manuel Cuesta and Jose Daniel Ferrer.” [AP, “Obama Praises Courage Of Cuban Dissidents,” 3/22/16]

President Obama Met With Business Leaders And Entrepreneurs In Cuba, Which Has Bled Much Of Its Workforce Due To Struggling Economy. “As President Obama met with President Raúl Castro of Cuba on Monday, a surprising statistic loomed over the two leaders: More than twice as many Cubans went to live in the United States last year than in 1959, when Mr. Castro’s brother Fidel came to power and unleashed a wave of migration that altered South Florida forever. While Mr. Obama attended a conference Monday afternoon with American business leaders and new entrepreneurs who are breathing life into a dying economy here, Cuba is bleeding doctors, small-business owners, construction workers and waitresses. Even with the country’s new restaurateurs and innkeepers, more beauticians have put down their clippers and more farmers have left their crops behind.” [New York Times, “Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Divided on Where to Stake Futures,” 3/21/16]

Obama Administration Looking To Slow Migration By Encouraging Economic Reform And Permitting More Commerce And Travel. “The Obama administration clearly hopes that as the Castro government moves toward economic reform and Washington permits more commerce and travel, more Cubans will stay put, slowing the steady stream of exits that has contributed to a broader migration crisis. But Cuba also benefits from those who leave. Many businesses on the island begin with the remittances émigrés send back from the United States. The Camachos said that it took about $25,000 to start a business like their cookie company, and that they were fortunate to count on American citizens in their immediate family.” [New York Times, “Stay or Go? Cuban Entrepreneurs Divided on Where to Stake Futures,” 3/21/16]

How The Politics of the Embargo Have Changed

Politico: “The American Political Revolution On Cuba Is Already Over.” “The American political revolution on Cuba is already over. Donald Trump proudly declared he was fine with the Cuba reopening at the debate in Miami, and then went on to wallop the two candidates —both Cuban-American—who strongly opposed it in the Florida primary, just five days later. (“I don't agree with President Obama, I do agree something should take place,” Trump said.) Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both say they’re on board without any qualification. The senator carrying the bill to lift the travel ban is a Republican, the congressman carrying the bill to lift the embargo is the guy who won Michele Bachmann's old seat who says he disagrees with Obama on basically everything else. Most expect both will pass comfortably when they eventually get to the floor.” [Politico, “Obama’s Cuba policy gains new fans,” 3/21/16]

While Republican Support For Lifting The Embargo Grows, Cubans Focus On Jumpstarting Their Economy. “Republicans haven’t just retreated—many have found freedom and free market reasons to be actively and affirmatively for the reopening. Meanwhile, the Cubans are watching ‘Scandal’ and ‘The Good Wife’ on pilfered flash drives, many—while they’re no fans of the Castros—telling people they’re less concerned fighting for democracy than getting onto Twitter, jumpstarting their economy, and finding a reason to stay in their country, unlike their many relatives who’ve left…The question that many are focused on is more about when Congress will catch up.” [Politico, “Obama’s Cuba policy gains new fans,” 3/21/16]

The Guardian: Rubio’s Loss In Miami Showed The Politics Of The Embargo Are “No Longer The Decisive Electoral Issue, As It Once Was.” “The sense that US politicians are like lost Japanese soldiers, stumbling from the jungle to discover the war ended decades ago, was compounded last week, when one of the fiercest critics of Obama’s strategy, Florida senator Marco Rubio, was thrashed in the state’s Republican presidential primary by a much more relaxed Donald Trump. Rubio, a Cuban American who called for more sanctions on Havana, dropped out of the race after losing his native state. Though complicated by other factors, Rubio’s defeat in all of Florida’s 67 counties, except his home town of Miami, is partly confirmation of what opinion polls have been suggesting for some time: that antipathy toward Havana’s communist government among Cuban Americans in the state is no longer a decisive electoral issue, as it once was.” [The Guardian, “Obama lands in Cuba as first US president to visit in nearly a century,” 3/21/16]

Ryan Cooper: U.S. Should Be Careful That Increased Business With Cuba Doesn’t Come At The Cost Of The Cuban People. “But there is no reason to think that totally unrestricted American investment would be some great boon to Cuba. Luxury hoteliers, for example, would surely prefer to monopolize Cuban beachfront while preventing as much of their guests' spending from leaking out into the Cuban economy as possible. Regulations ensuring that Cuba gets a least a decent cut of the action — perhaps requiring service staff be locals, or charging a stiff property tax — would likely improve Cuba's overall economic development rather than the opposite. Ultimately, there is only so much Obama can do. What comes ahead will be largely determined by future Congresses and presidents, and most of all by the Cubans themselves. Probably the best thing America can do most of all is avoid stamping all over Cuban sovereignty.” [The Week, “How Obama can safeguard his Cuba legacy,” 3/22/16]