A visitor from the U.S. in Havana will, eventually and undoubtedly, be asked, “What’s going on with your president?”
The debt ceiling chaos overtaking Washington right now isn’t what baffles the Cubans. The very idea of a debt ceiling mystifies them, especially since Cuba lives on debt, and things like the national budget are not really discussed in much detail here. In fact, Cubans seem generally convinced the Washington mess is mostly theater and that all will work out – whatever it is that has to work out – before the Aug. 2 deadline. My constant concern with finding out what was going on back home did little but amuse them.
But Barack Obama, now sidelined in the most defining moment of his own presidency, seemed to elicit head scratching and perplexed looks.
In its own way, that’s quite a change from the way Cubans have been viewing American presidents since I began to travel to the island as an adult in 1995. Though Bill Clinton had initially been greeted with hope, by 1995 his response to the Cojímar exodus – including allowing the tightening of the embargo – had earned him criticism and suspicion.
No one, of course, has been hated more than George W. Bush in recent years. Besides the restrictions imposed on travel and remittances, Bush appointed James Cason, now the mayor of exile-heavy Coral Gables, Fla., as head of the U.S. Interests Section, the embassy in all but name, and his antics were legendary. Besides his recklessness in ensnaring dissidents in activities that eventually got a bunch jailed, Cason was best known for running electric signs across the embassy in 2000 that said things like, “Democracy for Cuba” and “Cubans, rise up!” – an outrageous breach of protocol, no matter what anyone may think of Cuba’s government.
Fidel Castro, of course, responded in typical over-the-top fashion, razing the road in front of the embassy building and constructing an outdoor stage with scores of flag posts designed to obstruct the view of the embassy. Officially called the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Plaza, the Cubans informally refer to it as the “protestordomo,” because it’s been the site of hundreds of anti-U.S. rallies sponsored by the Cuban government.
Naturally, when Obama was elected, just about anyone would have had a better reception in Havana than the prior American president. But Barack brought particular things that made him more appealing than the average Democratic president of the behemoth to the north.
First, he’s black – an inspiration to the multitudes of Cubans of color, as was the case with people of color throughout the world. (Curiously, though Fidel had practically endorsed Obama in his commentaries, the government – in 2008 run by brother Raul – was well aware that Obama’s election put the lie to a good deal of propaganda about American racism, and that was a bit unnerving.) Second, he was going end the wars, close Guantánamo and bring an era of greater cooperation with Latin America that, everyone hoped, would also mean improved relations with Cuba.
Then, of course, there’s the story that supposes that Barack is Cuban. Before the 2008 election, rumors ran rampant that Obama’s mom got pregnant while on a solidarity tour of Cuba, his real father a man from the town of Sagua la Grande, and then rushed home and married Obama Sr. to cover it up. Just the vaguest chance that the president might be Cuban made him a big fave out on the streets of Havana.
Three years later, though, no one wants to lay claims to him.
Sure, he’s lifted some travel restrictions and laws regarding family reunification and remittances. But the wars continue, and Libya – a traditional ally of Cuba’s – is now feeling Obama’s bombs. And Guantánamo remains active, and Latin America has been almost completely ignored.
“¿Qué pasó?” the Cubans ask, sadly and sincerely.
And me, I have no answers at all.