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Barack Obama in Cuba Seen by a Cuban in America

A Cuban in New York talks about the president's historical visit to Cuba

by Sabina Pupo
obama-cuba

Il presidente Barack Obama al suo arrivo a Cuba - ph. ufficiale della Casa Bianca (Pete Souza)

A Cuban's view of Barack Obama's trip to Cuba. The idea of an American president visiting the island where some say the majority of the population looks like him. The memories of the bitter flight from the Castro regime and thoughts about the future

President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba has produced a frenzy of press interest and the major media in the US and abroad are reflecting this historic moment. It is the first visit to the neighboring southern neighbor by a US President since 1928.  About time, so many in the USA are stating. If we are doing business with China, why not with Cuba?  If President Richard Nixon’s decided on a rapprochement with China in the ’70’s, why not with nearby Cuba in 2016?  To this, I can only say if the Chinese government has opened up some economic possibilities to its citizens, political repression has also increased.  It’s not off to question if Xi Jinping is becoming a second Mao. And it is a valid question to pose if it is sustainable for a nation to have an improving economy along with restrictions on the civil and political rights of its people. With no accountability to a civil society with independent civilian institutions, China could very well be ruined by inefficient state enterprises, overextended banks and an impoverished rural population coupled by shaky foreign investments. Foreigners are careful now about how much to sink into China’s economy. The arrest of employees at foreign companies, held for months without charges, could be reason for alarm.

So we go back to Cuba. President Obama said the embargo will be lifted, not knowing when, but that this measure will eventually be lifted. Implemented in October of 1960, it was a measure undertaken when the US placed an embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. The wiping out of American economic interests in Cuba, had already been preceded by this author’s family holdings in February of 1960. In one day, the decades’ long hard work of my family in the Province of Oriente, was no more.  We were summarily defined as having acquired ‘bienes mal habidos’, in other words, what we had, was stolen. An easy – and arbitrary – judgement to pass on a family whose roots go back to our arrival on the island from Spain, in the 16th Century. But this summary judgement, excluded people like my father and other very talented Cubans from living and contributing on the island which, since 1959, was going to be in the hands of the newly minted Castro mafia.

The US embargo was solely with Cuba, although it was later augmented by the so-called Hems Burton Bill. But Cuba dealt freely with every other nation in the world and incurred a debt with the former Soviet Union that some calculate at US $32 billion dollars. In a headline, The Guardian in July of 2014 wrote that “Russia writes off a $32b Cuban debt in a show of brotherly love. Two years later, The Paris Club creditor nations forgave $8.5 billion of Cuba’s  $11.1 billion debt and restructured payments on the remainder with easy terms.  How nice.  You invest heavily in Cuba for decades and you also get to forgive their billionaire debt. Since the 90s, this reporter has followed the foibles of Fidel Castro’s fortune. Forbes lists him as one of the richest rulers in the world. In 2006, Forbes estimated Fidel’s wealth at US$900 million. Not bad for someone who got rid of the very Cuban nationals who brought prosperity to the island reflected in the nations’ economy in the ’50’s, the Cuban peso was worth more than the US Dollar.

So President Obama goes to Cuba and states that all decisions are from within. Check. That it is a sovereign nation which decisions hold. Check.  By going to Cuba, the President states that Google in Cuba will expand Wifi and broadband access on the island. Check. By stating that decisions come from within, as Cuban born I question the foreign press there that let the harassment and violence in Havana go unreported the week prior to the President’s arrival. Could there be fright, that the reporting of actual news in Havana could have resulted in their licenses being pulled by the Castro regime. I guess this is selective censorship, as is the statement of the island’s sovereignty.  Really. There is something called civilian sovereignty and I assure the kind reader that the approximate 1400 dissidents arrested or detained in the month of January or the 1141 suffering the same fate in the month of February.  This I heard from Mike Gonzalez, a Senior Fellow of the Heritage Foundation.  And regarding broadband and Wifi access, may I also point out that the average Cuban worker makes about US$20 a month which is not a salary conducive to the purchase of electronics.

One of the persons I contacted for this article is the Cuban saxophone player Orlando Sanchez Soto.  He believes that President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba will leave Cubans with an example of someone who is simple, very charismatic, quite accessible.
The President, according to Sanchez Soto, could be one of the many Cubans who are in different neighborhoods, or towns across the island, one of ‘them’ who has made it.  And made it to the highest office of what Cubans were once taught is the empire to the North, a place of racism and hate. And yet, President Barack Obama was twice handed the highest mandate of the empire, and there goes another thread of lies that the Castro regime perpetuated among the population.

But going back to the media coverage:  it was noticeable that Cuban media did not feed the path of the presidential motorcade to the international press.  It did not feed it, because it did not broadcast it on Cuban tv.  I can only guess as an attempt by the regime to keep as many Cubans as possible, not knowing where President Obama was going around, to keep as many as possible from running to see him. President Obama, according to Sanchez Soto, as one of them, “el cubano de a pie”, the Cuban who is always on foot, one of ‘them’ riding in a presidential motorcade. What a lost image.  That President Obama now speaks about commercial flights to Cuba, to get exchanges and people to people contact is quite amazing.  One would clap, right?  Well, I know of figures pointing out to Spain having the highest tourist rate of all of Europe during Franco’s dictatorship.  Did that have an impact on the people?  Well, Franco died if not peacefully, he did die in bed and held on to power until last breath. Money had flowed into his coffers to keep him and his military cruelty afloat, his family, richer than the average Spaniard. Ah, the beauty of Spain in the ’70’s, all for the tourists to have, the locals looking in. I’m ashamed and very much so to admit to this.

The one hope of this Cuba trip for me, is based on President Obama’s first voyage after becoming this nation’s chief commanding officer. Traveling to Cairo, the President delivered a speech in 2009.
Cairo had been chosen as the venue, as Egypt is seen as the center, or heart, of the Arab world.  The speech was well received in the Arab word, except for Osama bin Laden among other Al-Qaeda factions in the area.  What else could you expect?   And right after that, all hell broke out over Egypt.  The words to empower the disfranchised, the downtrodden, had taken root and what was pent up and undercover in the Egyptian society came to the surface.

With Cubans, firmly entrenched in the Western World notwithstanding the Castro’s attempts to culturally isolate it from its roots, I very much doubt that there will be any reaction as happened in Egypt.  But Cubans yearn, yearn for their civil sovereignty, Cubans yearn to reinsert themselves as the heart of the Americas as they are, to express their freedom and their talent without having to surrender the farm to the Castro state landowner.

A part of this link is already there.  The USA is already the main supplier of food to Cuba. Of course, with no credit or loans extended so far.  A nation with 80% of its land as arable, capable of producing food to feed itself, relies on its neighbor for its nourishment.  How very humiliating, at least for me.

And as for me, I cannot help but think that our solution is from within.  With no Messiah coming from abroad carrying freedom, but in the voice of the Dama de Blanco who is beaten up each Sunday, while making her voice heard.  Or of the graffiti artist known as El Sexto, who just recently said it’s time for all Cubans to stay at home.  It’s others, who must leave.  The solution is from within, it’s homegrown and it definitely involves me. You will know it’s the Cuba that was vibrant, a haven to refugees and immigrants – there were over 5,000 applications of Italians in the Cuban embassy in Rome in the late ’50’s trying to make it to Cuba – a stabilizing force in the region with an election system where there can be a real loser, and not just a prop, when I, I can return.  Home.  I dream about this every day of my life and I breath it.

Stay tuned.

* Sabina Pupo is a housewife who lives in New York City and is involved in charitable causes involving needy children.  She is also from a family of Cuban writers who left the island.  She finds it ironic that the family who decided to stay behind in Cuba is now wealthier than the cousins who also made it in the USA and questions corruption on the island.  Because of her family ties to Cuba, she is using family names for this article:  Sabina, the name her family called her at home in Cuba.

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