Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama in Havana

US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week is part of a major change in US relations with the island, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Across the West, and in particular in Washington, there is new optimism about Latin America. The continent is no longer America’s backyard, and this week’s visit by US President Barack Obama to Cuba underlines US determination to chart a new course. Obama’s decision to engage with Cuba is groundbreaking, and it marks a major change in US relations with the island as well as Latin America as a whole.

The Communist Caribbean island nation has long been seen as a symbol of Latin American independence and a declaration of the continent’s unique political identity. “Fifty years of isolating Cuba has failed to promote democracy and set us back in Latin America,” Obama noted this week.

The three-day trip, the first by a US president to Cuba in 88 years, needs to be put in context. It gives moderates on the island and opponents of the Communist leadership a chance to strengthen their foothold, and this will be in the interest of Washington as it will in much of the rest of the world.

“It’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people,” Obama said before leaving Washington. He arrived at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport in the Air Force One presidential jet with the United States of America emblazoned across its fuselage. It was raining heavily when Obama’s plane arrived, yet the US president, the first lady and two daughters Natasha and Malia were met on the tarmac by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla.

Cuban President Raul Castro was not present to greet Obama at the airport, causing some comment among observers. “It was unusual for the world to hear the president of the United States of America recognise that the policy of the past 50 years has failed, a policy that has caused humanitarian harm to our people,” Parrilla told the Euronews TV channel later.

“We can’t reach a normalisation of relations with the US blockade still in effect,” warned Cuban Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz.

In the wake of Obama’s visit, commentators are asking whether Cuba’s decision to welcome the US president this week is part of an effort by Havana to normalise relations with the US. Cuba could be the gateway to an entire continent, and in August 2015 there was another iconic event when the US flag was raised in Havana and diplomatic relations were re-established between the two countries.

This week’s visit was the first visit by an American president to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge’s early in the last century. In 2014, a German bank was fined $1 billion for dealing with Cuba, and the main issue now must be the lifting of the US sanctions.

Cuban Americans are the third largest Hispanic group in the US, with more than 70 per cent of them living in Florida because of its proximity to Cuba. With a population of 141,250, the New York metropolitan area’s Cuban community is the largest outside of Florida, and both communities are the result of the exodus to the US after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Some Cuban Americans, like Marco Antonio Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, are rabidly Republican, and this has frustrated aspects of Obama’s policy towards the island.

Then there is the question of returning Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, at present used by the US as the site of the infamous Guantanamo detention centre in which many people are still being held without trial on suspicion of engaging in activities related to terrorism. This disgraceful display of power must end.

Julio Antonio Mella McPartland, founder of the ruling Cuban Communist Party, was born on 25 March, a date that coincides with Obama’s visit. McPartland was assassinated in Mexico in 1929 when he was just 25 years old at the hands of the then Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado.

It is to be hoped that Obama will be dwelling more on the legacy of McPartland in the island nation during his visit this week than on that of the island’s former rulers, including Machado.

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