Last Monday, Obama made history by becoming the first sitting United States president to visit Cuba since 1928. The momentousness of the occasion was not lost, except maybe on Cuba’s current president Raúl Castro. While politicians and members of the press hailed Obama’s trip to the island as a historic triumph, the Cuban dictator apparently thought otherwise. Indeed, he did not even bother to greet the first family at the airport. Instead, the Obamas were received by a number of the regime’s dignitaries, including Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cuban ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cabanas. White House staff quickly came to Castro’s defense, claiming it was “never contemplated or discussed” that he would attend the landing of Air Force One at Jose Martí International Airport.
Castro’s failure to execute such a basic diplomatic courtesy goes beyond pettiness or poor optics. Indeed, one could argue that the debacle is symbolic of the Obama administration’s policy towards Cuba thus far. Time and time again, Obama has fecklessly made concessions to the Castro regime without getting much in return. Any and all negotiations have taken place on the regime’s terms. Cubans continue to live in squalor, arrests of dissidents continue and Castro and his cronies still line their pockets with the fruits of foreign investment. This isn’t about an American president being snubbed by a Communist dictator at the airport. This is about an administration that sees fit to negotiate with a regime that severely represses the rights of its citizens.
President Obama’s efforts to normalize U.S. relations with the island began in December 2014. Since then, embassies have reopened and diplomats have come and gone. We’ve seen a Rolling Stones concert and even a Tampa Bay Rays game in the heart of Havana. While these developments seem promising, we should be skeptical of whether tangible progress has taken place. Many events leading up to Obama’s visit suggest otherwise.
Only a few hours before Obama’s arrival in Havana, more than 50 anti-government protestors were detained. Most were female and belonged to a dissident group known as Damas de Blanco, or “Ladies in White,” that calls for democracy and free speech. According to eyewitnesses, many of the women were dragged away as state police forcibly removed them from the premises. Berta Soler, the leader of Damas de Blanco, was among those arrested just hours before the landing of Air Force One in Havana.
According to many dissidents, the regime had grown even more repressive in the days leading up to Obama’s visit. In the words of Elizardo Sánchez, a prominent dissident, the regime had cultivated a “climate of intimidation” and used “preventive repression” to dissuade detractors from actively protesting during President Obama’s stay.
As these arrests were taking place, Castro had the audacity to declare that there were no political prisoners in Cuba. As two human rights organizations quickly pointed out, his statement was little more than a farce. The Cuban American National Foundation released a list of 47 political prisoners shortly thereafter, as did the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Castro’s efforts to obscure the abuses of the Cuban regime is egregious enough. Yeteven more concerning is the response of the American delegation. Instead of condemning Castro’s blatant untruthfulness, they took in a baseball game at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano the following day. Obama found himself seated next to Raúl Castro, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands with Cuban players and dignitaries.
A highly anticipated match-up between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, the game was broadcast on both ESPN and ESPN Deportes, the network’s Spanish subsidiary. Like Obama’s visit to the island, it too was laden with significance. The Tampa Bay Rays became the first major league team to visit Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999.
Having grown up in a Cuban household, I felt somewhat obligated to tune in. In hindsight, all I can say is this: watching the Rays take the field against Cuba’s best peloteros was strange. There was something off-putting about the pageantry that led up to the first pitch. Everything from the singing of the national anthems to the introduction of the players took on a synthetic quality. I wondered what was going on beyond the confines of the stadium — political prisoners languishing in cells, families living in abject poverty, a nation without hope for a better future. To a second-term president trying to leave behind a legacy, these problems might not seem so salient. But, as a Cuban and an American, I can’t help but feel differently.