President Obama’s words echoed through Havana’s Gran Teatro Tuesday morning as he delivered a history-making speech. Families huddled around old televisions to hear what the president had to say – and didn’t say.
The speech was a long time coming – for Americans, for Cubans, and for Obama. And as the grandchild of Cuban exiles, I can say both his visit and address were much anticipated.
Obama was positioned to set a never-before-seen precedent – one that could have the power to not only impact Cuban-American relations, but the lives of the Cuban people as well. In 2009, the newly inaugurated Obama vowed a “new beginning” with Cuba. “We are not dug into policies created before I was born,” he said.
Returning to that historic theme during his speech, Obama mentioned the 1961 Bay of Pigs, which took place the year of his birth. It was an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government by U.S.-trained Cuban exiles. My grandfather was one of them. He still walks with a limp due to the poorly-removed bullet that shot through his thigh.
The history between Cuba and the U.S. has been a complicated tale – one that has divided people for decades across borders and ideologies. A history that Obama acknowledges but “refuses to be trapped by.”
He talked about the lifetime of confrontation and bad blood between the two countries separated by only 90 miles, and declared, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
He went on to list the many differences between the two countries’ governments and societies – likening the relationship to one of estranged brothers. Speaking of the blending of our cultures (by namedropping a certain Mr. 305 Worldwide, among others) as well as our similar values in family and education, he sought to connect the countries that have for so long been painfully separated.
Obama both praised and challenged the Cuban people. He applauded the island’s education system, which he said “values every boy and girl”. But I don’t quite see how that is true, because an education system that truly valued its students would encourage critical and independent thinking instead of indoctrination. A quote from Juan Travieso, a Miami-based artist who grew up in Cuba, shot into my head like a bullet: “I remember every political salute but I can’t remember what I learned in chemistry class.”
Teaching schoolchildren to chant the praises of Che Guevara – a long-dead mass murderer – is hardly conducive to learning.
Obama also lent positive words to the Cuban exiles forced to leave their homeland. “In the United States, we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build – it’s called Miami.” Though he applauded these Cubans’ achievements, he didn’t explain exactly why they left in the first place.
I wish he had been less subtle, but I understand he was walking a tight rope. I do appreciate how powerfully he spoke of the benefits of democracy and political freedom – specifically when he boldly told Cuban President Raul Castro that he “need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”
With that sentence, I was reminded of family members who still live in Cuba, who have my same blood running through the veins of their tired hands, hands they cup to their mouths as they warn in hushed tones to not speak against the government.
Mr. Obama took pains to give a balanced address that acknowledged the problems that exist in democracy – though he further explained how its benefits tremendously outweigh them. He made it clear that freedom to speak without fear is what leads to change.
Most importantly, to me, was when Obama mentioned the most famous poem by Cuba’s national hero – Jose Marti. I believe its meaning provides the crux of the president’s entire speech, and helps explain why he continuously remained even-keeled throughout it.
Cultivo una rosa blanca
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazon con que vivo,
Cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
Cultivo una rosa blanca.
I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January;
For the sincere friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one who snatches
The heart by which I live,
Thistle nor nettle do I give:
I cultivate a white rose.
The poem talks about planting and nurturing a white rose – the quintessential symbol of pure peace and love. The narrator plants the rose for both the friend who is good to him and for the friend who hurts him. It delivers a potent theme of friendship – and I believe Obama was inspired to use it in his speech as an olive branch offered from the United States to Cuba. It perhaps furthers his case that even with the differences between the neighboring nations– and despite the bitterness and suffering that’s remained for so long – he hopes to plant a white rose.
Read a full transcript of the speech here.