As the clouds broke and a tropical rain came pouring down in Havana on Sunday afternoon, two dozen patrons in a downtown cafe fell silent, their eyes glued to a single television set. On the screen was a grainy image of the touchdown of Air Force One in Cuba and the emergence of Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit the island in nearly a century.
“Socialism can change. If Obama can lift the blockade.”
Obama’s visit has ignited in Cubans a sentiment similar to that which many progressives in the United States felt when he first stepped into the national spotlight eight years ago — an unabashed hope that politics as usually can and will change. In particular, many Cubans hope that Obama’s gesture will lead to the lifting of the half-century-long economic embargo, which the United States maintains against its island neighbor.
Many Cubans’ reactions to Obama’s visit sound like echoes of his 2008 campaign slogans.
“Change is coming, change is coming,” Amauris Roque, a Havana taxi driver, told Truthout while making repairs to his 1950 Chevy, popping in and out from under the hood. “I think this is Obama’s moment to do it. This is the moment,” he said. “This is a historic moment.”
“There’s another way of thinking nowadays.” he added, “Socialism can change. If Obama can lift the blockade,” Roque said, “that would be perfect.
For Malena Sanchez, a grandmother who sells peanuts to tourists along Havana’s famed seaside promenade, the Malecón, Obama’s visit represents a new promise for her country. “I never thought this day would come, when we would rebuild a relationship with the US, but it is finally here. And we love Obama for that,” she said.
“Plus,” she added, “he’s Black.”
But Obama’s aura of hope and change may well leave the Cuban people disappointed. The lifting of the US embargo against the country — easily the single most harmful policy affecting Cuba — depends on more than Obama’s charisma: It requires an act of Congress. None of the presidential front-runners have indicated that they are ready to spend the political capital necessary to repeal the embargo and there has not yet been any motion in Congress.
Still, for many Cubans, the exposure between the two countries itself is important.
“The visit is at least an opportunity [for Obama] to get to know Cuba, its people, how we live and Cuban society,” said Patricia Lastra, a high school student in Havana, who was wearing a T-shirt with a heart-shaped American flag. “That’s a big step forward for both countries.”
Inside the cafe in downtown Havana, Hector, a civil lawyer who declined to give his last name, watched Obama wave from the airport tarmac with a distinct skepticism.
“I truly hope this is real, that the United States’ intentions are good,” he said, staring at the TV.
“But the US has punished us for 50 years and they might do it for 50 more. I guess we just have to wait until they realize that [lifting the embargo] is the right thing to do,” he said, leaning back, arms folded in partial resignation.
“Until they do, we’ll be here.”