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Obama's visit to Cuba rubs out old battle lines and stirs calls for change — but can it last?

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during Monday's meeting at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba. [Associated Press]
Published Mar. 26, 2016

HAVANA — For decades, Cuba and the United States have framed their relationship as a conflict of opposites: Communism vs. capitalism; Cuban loyalists vs. Cuban exiles; the state vs. the individual.

But last week's visit to the island by President Barack Obama — the first by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge — made clear that the old lines of battle are breaking down. Here in a place known for its rigidity, ruled since 1959 by a single family, a confounding mash-up of what was once held apart now defines how life works.

Just watching the awkward dance between Obama and his Cuban counterpart at a news conference Monday left many Cubans stunned. Young and old remarked that their president, Raúl Castro, did not deliver a strong performance. But there he was, a Castro, admitting he had agreed to take only one question, then stumbling through three — about human rights, no less — as an American president nudged him along in a classic ritual of a more open society.

It was awkward to watch, the octogenarian guerrilla and the younger American, precisely because it showed Castro moving into uncomfortable territory.

Obama's engagement policy and Castro's minor opening to free-market ideas and careful criticism have together created a new dynamic for Cuba that is just beginning to reveal what it could become.

"While I'm confident that history will judge Obama's visit and speech as a unmitigated home run, in the Cuban context he's only a pinch-hitter or a warm-up batter," said Ted Henken, a Cuba scholar at Baruch College. "The real contest can only be decided through a frank, respectful and broadly inclusive national dialogue among Cubans themselves."

Loyalists vs. exiles

Obama's first major Cuba policy speech occurred about six months before he was first elected president, at a luncheon hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation that I attended in Miami on May 23, 2008.

Cuban-Americans of some prominence, including Jorge Mas Santos, the son of Jorge Mas Canosa, who used the foundation as a cudgel against the Castros, had told Obama that there would be broad support in the exile community for loosening travel rules, to allow Cuban-Americans more freedom to go back.

Obama and his campaign chose to elevate emotion over ideology. Who could oppose reuniting Cuban families?

I was the New York Times bureau chief in Miami then, and I remember thinking the Obama approach was a bit risky. The embargo prohibiting imports and exports was still sacred, and Cuban-American hard-liners dominated public discussion, calling those who asked if the politics around Cuba were changing "clowns," "idiots" or worse. Polls showed most Cuban-Americans still supported the embargo and a stiff anti-Cuba position.

But when Obama told the crowd that if elected, he would immediately allow "unlimited family travel and remittances to the island," a cheer arose, even among middle-aged exiles in Guayaberas who told me they had previously rejected that kind of engagement.

When Obama fulfilled that promise with a policy change in 2009, a rush to Cuba began. Now more than 400,000 Cuban-Americans go annually. When Castro later signaled a shift of his own, no longer calling exiles gusanos, or worms, as his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro had done, the divide between Cuban and Cuban-American, between exile and loyalist, eased further away.

The examples Obama cited in his speech Tuesday of Cuban-Americans' experiencing emotional reunions — including Melinda Lopez, who said "so many of us are now getting so much back" by returning after more than 50 years — are commonplace now. And they are only part of the story.

More significant are the connections between recent migrants and relatives back in Cuba who have opened small businesses under Raúl Castro's new allowances for self-employment. Over the past few years, I've met mechanics, chefs, barbers and clothes sellers who all relied on family members abroad to act as unofficial partners, even though investment is illegal under the embargo and Cuban law.

The entire idea of going and staying is now being renegotiated. With Cuba also gambling on Cuban families — in 2012, Raúl Castro made it easier for Cubans to travel without losing citizenship — many more Cubans leave, but do not stay away.

A few weeks ago at Florida International University in Miami, I visited a class filled with the children and grandchildren of exiles, and Analiz Faife, a biology major, who told me she was sad to have left Cuba just two years ago (after waiting seven years for a visa) and planned to move back as soon as she could. "We're here not just for our own futures," she said through a rush of tears, "but because we want to go back and help our country."

Outside the baseball stadium where Obama and Castro sat together for a game, I heard something similar from Juliet Garcia Gonzalez, 17. "Most people here want to leave and come back," she said. "That's really the best way to do it."

We were standing in a new Wi-Fi zone. Juliet fiddled with her phone; she was eager to keep video-chatting with a friend in Miami.

Communism vs. capitalism

Many Cubans see technology and affordable Internet access as one of, if not the, most important priorities for their country. In his speech Tuesday, Obama told them, "The Internet should be available across the island so that Cubans can connect to the wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history."

But his meeting with entrepreneurs the day before missed the degree of activity taking place, and the way some Cubans see technology as the path to a new economic model that is neither communist nor capitalist, and perfectly suited to Cuba's culture of sharing.

Medardo Rodriguez is a leader of this techno-movement. A lanky former computer science professor from the countryside whose quirky brilliance becomes apparent the longer you listen to him tell you not to interrupt, Rodriguez is a co-founder of Merchise Startup Circle, a group of Cuban programmers who have begun to host two-day startup competitions in Havana.

I met Rodriguez outside the entrepreneur event, then sat down with him later for a lengthy interview that began with coffee and moved on to beer. He told me that Merchise's goal was to create a series of networking events and online and offline communities of people across the country who could use their programming skills to earn money with contracts for global software companies (which already happens, somewhat), then create startups to serve Latin-American and American markets.

It was the kind of thing that would have been impossible to imagine before the announcement of restored relations between Cuba and the United States on Dec. 17, 2014. But a few days before the Obama visit, Stripe Atlas — a startup in San Francisco that helps international companies set up a payment system in the United States — agreed to work with Merchise.

"We think there's a lot of pent-up potential here," said Patrick Collison, chief executive of Stripe Atlas. "There are a lot of people who have been programming for 20 years, but it's never been possible to start a company."

Rodriguez, who started Merchise in the 1990s by recruiting two or three of his best students from each of his classes, said he expected sizable growth, with several events in the coming year. Even though public Internet access is still limited to hotels and government Wi-Fi hot spots, he said most programmers worked offline and then got online when they needed to.

"The great thing about right now is that we have the attention of the world," he said. "I'm constantly getting emails from people I don't know, who want to work with us." He went on to say, "This is a perfect moment for Cuba," adding, "We just have to take advantage of it."

He acknowledged challenges, mentioning infrastructure and bureaucracy. But when I asked if he thought the Cuban government would allow what sounded like a grand capitalist experiment, he cautioned against such categorizations.

"I don't like names; what is capitalism?" he said. "Is it the United States, France, Haiti or Burundi?"

State vs. individual

The techno-utopian dream of Merchise slows to a crawl when confronted with questions of freedom of expression and politics. The state continues to be ever-present and suffocating for Cubans seeking changes beyond the safety of business.

Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said he worried that the hopes that blossomed during the president's visit would be crushed by government repression.

He had been detained for several hours at the Havana airport when he flew in last weekend from Miami to join a group of dissidents meeting with Obama on Tuesday.

"Obama is running a grave risk, because the government of Cuba has an enormous capacity to make promises they never fulfill," he said. "They manipulate everything."

"The Castros," he added, "have an enormous capacity to intimidate all Cubans."

Yet Sánchez was not too intimidated to speak up, nor are many others. Cubans have been becoming bolder since Raúl Castro took over. But Obama's visit has cracked open Cuba's careful conversations, creating an eruption of frank criticism of Castro's policies, at least in private.

The ranks of independent Cuban reporters trying to capture those voices, explain Cuba and hold it accountable are not large, nor are they as well-financed as the state-run media that filled the television airwaves this week with the usual menu of anti-American propaganda between Obama appearances. (Many Cubans turned off their TVs at that point.)

But those ranks are growing. Elaine Diaz, a former Nieman fellow at Harvard, told me she had come back to Cuba after relations were restored because she felt there might be more freedom to do real journalism here, and she said that had mostly proven true.

"I'm feeling much more calm," she told me, adding, "It's impossible to control millions of Cubans."

What Diaz and many other Cubans say they want is a Cuba that confronts its own problems separate from its relationship with the United States.

In many corners, there is a desire to look further back in history, to before Castro's revolution, for Cuba's essential nature, and to be done with the duality that Obama described when he said, "Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual."

The Cubans I've talked to during this trip and many others want something else. A pair of teachers, who now have nearly 40 students per class, told me they hoped economic growth would lead to a better free education system. A tour guide for the government said the state needed to shrink quickly and significantly, but stay strong enough to keep inequality in check.

The challenge for the United States and Cuba — or, really, for the Castro family — now involves finding ways to help Cubans chart their own course into this unfamiliar territory that is neither purely go-go American, nor the restricted Cuba of today.

It means more uncomfortable questions. And more answers.

Past vs. future

One key question remained unanswered for Cubans after Obama departed: For all the musing about political change in the streets over the past week, how much of it will last?

"We shouldn't kid ourselves that they're going to all of a sudden tolerate dissent," said Michael Posner, Obama's former assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy. "This is a very ostracized regime. They've been in power a long time. They don't really have any instincts for reform. It's going to be a struggle."

The first clues could come next month during the Communist Party Congress meeting in Havana, a forum for unveiling major changes. An announcement of greater political freedoms or reform-minded economic steps would suggest that Obama's strategy was starting to bear fruit.

Under the glare of global attention, Castro did little to publicly undermine Obama. After all, Obama enjoys immense popularity in Cuba. Images of a young black president strolling through Old Havana seemed to resonate with Cuba's racially diverse people, forming a powerful contrast with the aging Castro.

In the days ahead, though, that public spotlight will dim, giving Castro an opening to return to business as usual should he so choose. Though he's taking modest steps to open up Cuba's economy and relax certain social restrictions, there are still no indications Castro plans to make any of the changes to Cuba's single-party system that Obama advocated.

"We will continue to speak out loudly on the things that we care about," Obama said near the end of his visit.

Central to Obama's strategy is to raise the Cuban people's expectations, driving up pressure on Castro's government to accelerate the pace of change. Wary Cuban officials have picked up on the tactic, with some regarding Obama's entreaties as a post-Cold War attempt to coerce Cuba with diplomacy instead of the threat of force.

Ahead of his trip, Obama's aides said a key goal was to make his rapprochement with Cuba irreversible. He left the island with plenty of indications that tipping point could be in sight.

Soon, as many of 110 commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba will take off daily, bringing millions of Americans to the country and further exposing Cubans to the outside world. With Americans hungry for a taste of Havana, Obama is banking on the notion that it will be incredibly unpopular for the next president to tell them to cancel their vacations.

Famed U.S. hotel chains Starwood and Marriott are poised to take over hotels in Cuba after striking deals with Havana and getting permission from Washington, and Google is making a major play on the island as well. Brian Chesky, CEO of online lodging service Airbnb, told reporters in Havana that Cuba is his company's fastest-growing market.

"There comes a point where reversing it will seem like a very crazy idea," said former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican who left Cuba as an exile at age six. "I think we're just about at that stage."

Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

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