On March 21, 2016 U.S. President Obama stood side by side with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba. The first United States President to visit Cuba since 1928, Obama’s visit was a history making occasion. Together both presidents gave speeches to the people of Cuba and the world, about the ongoing path towards the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba after over 50 years of hostility.
On the following pages in this issue of Fire This Time you will have the chance to read a fantastic speech given by Cuban President Raul Castro as he stood next to U.S. President Barack Obama in Havana in front of dozens of international media cameras, played live to the world. You will also read a recently printed “Reflection by Fidel”, one of Cuban revolutionary leader Comandante Fidel Castro’s articles which reflects his thoughts and assessment after U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit.
While we are not reprinting any of Obama’s talks, they are all available on the White House’s official website. However, the most telling part of Obama’s speeches is not really what he said, but most revealing aspect of this historic “Joint Press Conference”, were the things Obama did not say.
On Democracy & Human Rights
Obama stated, "We continue, as President Castro indicated, to have some very serious differences, including on democracy and human rights. And President Castro and I have had very frank and candid conversations on these subjects."
Of course, the “democracy” to Obama is what the U.S. government calls Cuba’s “one-party system” versus the United States “two-party democracy”. Cuba however, would consider itself to have a grassroots participative democracy – where everyone can run and participate no matter their wealth and the United States to have a bourgeois democracy – meaning no matter which of the “two” parties you vote for, the wealthy elite are always the ones elected to power.
In 2008, New York Magazine wrote about Obama's personal wealth in the lead up to the presidential vote. "Compared to the average American, Obama is very wealthy. Compared to the other presidential candidates, he’s an indigent. His current salary is $165,200 (he earned $60,000 as a state senator). [...] Obama has a hobolike net worth of $1.3 million." How could New York Magazine call a millionaire "hobolike"? Because the other candidates were all multi-millionaires!
We all learned from the Occupy movement than only 1% of Americans are millionaires, and we know even less are multi-millionaires - so why does Obama get to call his system "democratic"? The definition of democracy is "government by the people; especially: rule of the majority." Is the U.S. ruled by the "majority" if the 99% who are not millionaires can never hope to have the wealth and power needed to be elected?
Beyond explaining the word “democracy”, what Obama forgot to mention in his remarks was the violations of human rights happening in Cuba, right under his nose. Not under the jurisdiction of Fidel or Raul Castro, but under his jurisdiction In the U.S. prison “camp X-ray” in the U.S. occupied territory of Guantanamo Bay.
We know that Obama promised to close the prison camp at Guantanamo within 100 days of winning the presidency. However, we are now almost 8 years into his two terms and that bastion of human rights abuse run by the U.S. government and its military is still in operation. In a February 2016 article titled, "'No one but himself to blame': how Obama's Guantánamo plans fell through" for the Guardian UK, journalist Spencer Ackerman explains, "Obama gave a speech on 21 May 2009 at the National Archives that […] used all of the rhetoric against Guantánamo that the groups had compiled during the Bush years. Guantánamo had “set back [America’s] moral authority” and was a “rallying cry for our enemies”. Some 240 detainees were in a “legal limbo”. The military commissions were less efficient than civilian courts in dispensing justice. Guantánamo, all told, was “a mess”.
Yet with the exception of torture, Obama chose to retain every objectionable practice at Guantánamo. While he said he preferred to try detainees in civilian courts, he defended the military commissions, and downplayed his 2006 Senate vote against them, calling them an “appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war”.
Most importantly, Obama conceded a role for indefinite detention – this time in the United States. He called them “a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States”."
The long quote from the article by Spencer Ackerman gives you an idea of how Obama’s constructive rhetoric can move quickly from finding solutions to problems, to trying to convince people that there is no real problem at all. While Obama suggested many times during his visit to Cuba that the Cuban government is the violator of human rights, about a thousand kilometres away in Guantanamo dozens of men have been “cleared for release” by the U.S. government – some for years – who are still languishing in prison. Others have been declared “prisoners for life” by the U.S. military because they are “said to be dangerous” but the military does not have enough evidence to charge them with anything.
Obama explained, "The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care. And perhaps most importantly, I affirmed that Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation. Cuba is sovereign and, rightly, has great pride. And the future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else."
What Obama did not mention here is if this means the U.S. government will stop investing millions of dollars every year into “democracy building” projects in Cuba? The National Endowment for Democracy and other government sponsored U.S. institutions have been famously funnelling money to the so-called “Cuban opposition” for decades. Obviously the opposition has not grown or gained any real momentum, or Obama would not be forced to negotiate with the rightful sovereign and revolutionary government of the Cuban people, the one lead by Raul Castro. It would seem that Obama should put his money where his mouth is and let Cuba decide its own future, free of U.S. sponsored “regime change” programs.
On the U.S.-Cuba Thaw (or path towards normalization of relations)
To demonstrate some of the work happening between the U.S. and Cuba today, Obama gave a long list of items that they are working on thus far. He said, "And today, I can report that we continue to move forward on many fronts when it comes to normalizing relations." Obama goes on to state:
- "We’re moving ahead with more opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba and interact with the Cuban people"
- "U.S. airlines will begin direct commercial flights this year"
- "We’re moving ahead with more trade"
-"We welcome Cuba’s important announcement that it plans to end the 10 percent penalty on [U.S.] dollar conversions here"
- "We’ve agreed to deepen our cooperation on agriculture to support our farmers and our ranchers"
- "We’re moving ahead with our efforts to help connect more Cubans to the Internet and the global economy"
-"We’re moving ahead with more educational exchanges"
- "We’re moving ahead with more events and exchanges that bring Cubans and Americans together"
- "We’re moving ahead with partnerships in health, science, and the environment"
"We're moving ahead with our closer cooperation on regional security"
Here Obama failed to mention that the Cuban people and government have been seeking this cooperation for over 50 years since the triumph of the Cuban revolution. It was the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, who have unjustly blockaded Cuba, trying to bully the people of Cuba into poverty and misery in the hopes they would abandon their revolution.
The revolutionary government of Cuba is different than some other communist systems, which have opted for isolation or focusing inward on building their version of socialism. Cuba is a revolutionary internationalist country. They have always sought to empower oppressed and working people in all countries of the world to strive for better living conditions and justice. It was these ideas that took Cuba to Africa to fight against Apartheid and more recently against Ebola; that took Cuba to Pakistan to provide free doctors after the earthquake in 2005; or that led revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara to leave his family and new homeland behind to fight with the people of the Congo and Bolivia for their liberation.
By speaking of partnerships, projects and cooperation Obama is omitting that it was his predecessors and their policies which held back this friendship. Not only did they want to strangle Cuba’s revolution, but they also limited the travel of Americans to Cuba, afraid that too many American’s might see and be inspired by the truth – that the revolution in Cuba brought tremendous gains and dignity to its people.
On the Blockade
Mixed in with the long list of projects the U.S. and Cuba are working on together, Obama adds in, "I continue to call on Congress to lift the trade embargo, I discussed with President Castro the steps we urge Cuba to take to show that it’s ready to do more business, which includes allowing more joint ventures and allowing foreign companies to hire Cubans directly."
First what Obama and the U.S. never call their sanctions against Cuba is a "blockade". Cuba, on the other hand, only uses the word blockade. Why? Here is an explanation from the website cubavsbloqueo.cu: "Why blockade instead of embargo? The actions implemented against Cuba by the United States Government do not fit in the definition of embargo. Cuba is not indebted to the United States and didn’t commit crime whatsoever which might deserve the seizure and settlement of goods in the United States’ favor. Cuba is not and has never been a threat for the United States, therefore the allegations these actions are applied in self-defense are contrary to international law. The United States use the term “embargo” to avoid recognition that wartime measures are applied against Cuba, of undeclared war against the Cuban people. On the other hand, the isolation, asphyxiation and immobility Cuba is submitted to is categorized as a blockade, which means cutting, closing, cut off communication abroad to achieve the country’s surrender by dint of hunger or the use of force."
Secondly, why is the blockade (or embargo as Obama calls it) only a small note within Obama’s speech? This is the main demand of the Cuban people and government. If you want all of the projects and cooperation to flourish as stated above, the blockade must be lifted! Besides, while it is true that to end some major aspects of the blockade Obama would need the support of the United States’ Congress, there are still many measures he can take as head of state, which Cuba has been urging him to do. Again his lack of action speaks just as loud, if not louder, than his words.
On the future
To wrap up his remarks Obama expressed, "With every passing day, more Americans are coming to Cuba, more U.S. businesses and schools and faith groups are working to forge new partnerships with the Cuban people. More Cubans are benefitting from the opportunities that this travel and trade bring."
While Obama tried to say these new relations are about letting Cubans decide the future of Cuba, it sounds here like he is talking more and more about how Americans will impact Cubans. Looking at other American tourist destinations from Mexico, to Puerto Rico, to Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, we have to ask if workers in these countries really benefiting from the “opportunities that this travel and trade bring”?
Tourism is a risky business. Obama forgot to mention how Americans used to view Cuba in the 1950s, as an American playground for the wealthy elite. Tourism at that time meant drug trafficking, gambling, prostitution and while it gave some Cubans good paying jobs – there was widespread poverty throughout the island. It was this contradiction between the immensely wealthy and the desperately poor – that lead to the Cuban people rising up for justice and organizing their revolution.
What Obama did say makes it sound as if the people of the third world, or developing nations which have beach resorts are praying for the arrival of American tourists (of course those involved directly in the tourism industry probably are) as an answer to their countries ‘developing’ status. Unfortunately for Obama there is not one case of a country rising above its “developing” status due to American tourists.
What Obama failed to mention, is that Americans still cannot freely travel to Cuba. While his administration has modified some aspects of the travel ban, Americans need special permission from their government (in the form of licences) to travel to Cuba. How’s that for ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’?
What we can learn…
Finally, Obama also did not mention what the people of Cuba can teach Americans – because this is what the U.S. government is most afraid of and why for over 50 years they have continued to prevent the American people from travelling freely to socialist Cuba. The U.S. government is afraid of losing the battle of ideas. That American tourists will not win over Cubans to capitalism, but that the Cuban people might teach the Americans something about power of Cuban socialism.
Despite the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations it was a battle of ideas on display on March 21, 2016 as Obama and Raul stood side by side.
Follow Tamara on Twitter:@THans01
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