Since February the world has been talking about the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his family visiting the island nation of Cuba. It has been 88 years since a US president has touched Cuban soil, and with Obama’s second and final term coming to a close, you can imagine the excitement surrounding his visit. And I got to witness it firsthand!
From the time Obama touched down at the Jose Martí International airport, I have engaged in conversations with Cubans and foreigners alike about the symbolism surrounding his visit but also the implications of our President of the United States and his family visiting Cuba at such a critical time in both country’s history. Direct flights and postal services have opened up between the US and Cuba, not to mention the several hundred students including myself who have chosen Cuba as their study abroad destination. In my mind I began to wonder: Would all this “openness” truly solidify a friendship between these two countries?
At around 4pm on March 20 the First Family landed and began their three-day visit in Havana. Two hours prior, my program group stationed itself on the Malecón, braving the cold rain to catch a glimpse of the motorcade on its way to Habana Vieja (Old Havana). All for POTUS and FLOTUS!
The following day we woke up early to salute Obama as he visited the Jose Martí memorial, one of the nation’s heroes, in Central Havana.
As we stood around we could hear young children yelling “Obama!” His impression on elementary school children seemed to be more than just mere rancor. Streets were closed off and buses rerouted. People on route to work either ended up going late or not showing up at all.
Obama en Paseo (courtesy of Robyn Farley ’17)
My next stop would be Dulce Habana, my second home, to watch as Obama and Raúl Castro held their preliminary talk in front of both country’s dignitaries. Raúl took to the podium first, armed with a direct demeanor, focused on the “bloqueo” and its impact on the Cuban people. To me, Raúl was making a plea to the US to open up its doors to Cuba in a way that seemed genuinely mutual. Moments after, President Obama took to his mic, charming those who would hear of hopes for the US and Cuba to actively work on their relations with one another amicably, but also for the Cuban people to lead themselves to a brighter future, with the help of the US.
Both the Q&A thereafter along with Obama’s Andreas’ at Teatro de Alicia Alonso opened my eyes to the importance of rhetoric as well as action. The two must work hand in hand – if there is any slight difference, criticism ensues. I, myself, have been in positions at Amherst, whether it has been head of the Black Students Union or most recently when I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Amherst Uprising movement, where physical expression of my beliefs and values have been examined in tandem with the actual words that I stand by. In the case of these two world leaders, both Obama and Raúl showed themselves to be deliberate with their diction.
When two groups of people come together in an effort to compromise, they often seek to look past their differences and find a common ground. In terms of Cuba and the US, they looked to their common pastime: baseball (or in Cuban : pelota). I have watched several hours of provincial league ball here and a dozen games back at home (go Yanks!) but the Habana national team versus the Tampa Bay Rays game was like no other. While Obama only stayed till the top of the 2nd inning, his presence alongside Raúl was definitely appreciated by all spectators. And the game was a greatly played one if I do say so myself.
In order to chronicle this major event in history I decided to buy the local newspapers each day during the Obama’s stay. From transcripts of the speeches to highlighted events such as FLOTUS’ talk with Cuban students, no stone was left unturned. Critical opinion pieces have also made it to print including Fidel Castro’s own Houghton on President Obama’s visit. Here are some photos of the clippings below.
I am so grateful to have witnessed this monumental time in the history of these two nations. Truly experiencing this and having the opportunity to talk about it with all types of people is the definition of immersion. #studyabroadgoals
Up next, Spring Break and then my take on finding my home away from home during my stay thus far in Cuba!