Until March 19, 2016, 88 years had passed since a sitting President of the United States set foot in Cuba.
When Republican President Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in 1928, Cuba was on the fringe of self-implosion. Mario García Menocal, a conservative president, was in power. Civilians were still reeling from their entrance into World War I a decade before, corporate interests were taking over the island, and the right- and left-wing parties were more divided than ever.
In 1928, Coolidge visited the island under the Platt Agreement — a treaty signed between the Spanish and the Americans in 1898. Under the treaty, the United States military would end its occupation in Cuba so long as it retained influence in the island’s diplomatic affairs. Coolidge visited Cuba to exercise his diplomatic powers under this treaty. Both Americans and the distressed Cuban population welcomed this sitting President’s visit.
Cuba was Coolidge’s first foreign trip as president. The main purpose of his travels was to unite the political right and left of the nation before Cuba destroyed itself through internal disagreement. In a show of restrained power, Coolidge sailed in a Navy battleship to the Caribbean nation and parked with grandeur in the Port of Havana. “A multitude of people cheered with the enthusiasm born of an intensive Latin nature,” wrote New York Times reporter Richard V. Olhoun at the time.
Upon his arrival, Coolidge addressed the Pan-American Conference in a Cuban theater. In his speech, he stressed the idea that all nations in the Americas must stand as one, and that no nation in the western hemisphere was considered more highly than the other. Coolidge offered hope to a floundering Cuban population and encouraged Americans that the western hemisphere could be united.
In 2016, through his own trip to Cuba, sitting President Barack Obama hoped to offer another vision for unity. The two missions differ in important ways, however. Instead of pushing for peace among Cubans themselves, Obama hoped to broker peace between two nations whose approaches to government rule are irreconcilable.
Although both Coolidge and Obama hoped to advance a message of hope through their visits to Cuba, international circumstances vary deeply in 2016 versus 1928. Today, these differences render a gesture of accord between the two nations inappropriate at best.
In the 88 years succeeding Coolidge’s Cuba visit, the nation has digressed into communism under the pitiless hands of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl. Cuban citizens cower at the memories of Che Guevara, who murdered thousands of innocents by firing squad during the Cuban Revolution. In a sick twist, Cubans must every day pledge their allegiance to a regime which has slaughtered families: They must verbally promise to “be like Che.” Memorials to the nation’s most vicious revolutionaries are scattered throughout Havana, including a gigantic mural of the Argentinian-born Guevara — before which President Obama proudly posed for a picture.
Obama arrived in Cuba on Monday, March 20th, with a large entourage comprising his family, Democratic and Republican politicians, White House correspondents, and celebrities like baseball legend Derek Jeter.
Upon arrival, Obama delivered a speech in the exact same theater in which Coolidge gave his speech to the Pan-American Conference. Today’s Cuban citizens did not greet President Obama with the same enthusiasm as Coolidge, however. Hours before Air Force One’s Havana landing, more than 50 Cuban dissidents were arrested for proclaiming their opposition to the Castro regime. (Undoubtedly, these protesters were also against Obama’s plan to rub elbows with the dictator who has long filled their nightmares.) These arrestees swelled the ranks of the nearly 1500 citizens who are arbitrarily detained each month in Cuba.
Furthermore, President Obama did not travel to Cuba under the diplomatic policy dictated by an internationally binding document like the Platt Agreement. Instead, he visited the island nation in “baseball diplomacy.” While in Havana, Obama watched the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Cuban National Baseball team — apparently, the United States and Cuba share a national pastime.
For many Cubans, however, the baseball game between the countries rubbed salt in a very old and deep wound.
José Miguel Vivanco, who is the head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group in D.C. and who is generally supportive of Obama’s engagement of Cuba, told In Cuba Today that the itinerary of the visit “will make Cubans wonder whether Obama is sincere when he talks about defending human rights in Cuba.” When Obama watches a baseball game with Raúl Castro, “it [will] be a slap in the face to all of those whose lives have been destroyed by the Cuban dictatorship.”
In a recent ESPN interview, sports reporter and son of Cuban immigrants Dan Le Batard described the feeling, popular in the Cuban-American community, that the President’s visit to Cuba was duplicitous. “It just hurts my feelings,” said Le Batard. “Many people will die before the Castro regime dies, and America is playing ball with a dictatorship.”
Le Batard says that he and fellow Cubans feel “betrayed” by the Obama administration’s decision. “What a punch in the face to Miami and Cubans — it’s like ‘Wait a minute…We’re sending our President to shake that hand? Derek Jeter is going to shake that hand? The hand with the blood of our people on it?’” Le Batard continued: “Every time I write about Cuba, I cry. All I’ve known is freedom. But do you know how much my parents and grandparents had to suffer to give it to me?”
On the Saturday leading up to Obama’s Havana arrival, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, another Cuban American, stated that the Obama Cuba trip “promises to be one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a U.S. president anywhere in the world.” In the past, Rubio has said that he would visit Cuba “only if it is a free Cuba.”
Though Obama’s visit to Cuba may be popular in most liberal circles — and even with some conservatives — it remains widely unpopular within the Cuban-American population. Resuming normal relations with Cuba actively enables Castro’s ruthless autocracy. Such tacit approval of his dictatorship deals a low blow to many older Cuban Americans who years ago escaped from the despotic state.
Many people hoped, at least, to hear Obama condemn Cuba’s horrendous record on human rights during his press conference with Raúl Castro. Instead, they were disheartened to the leader of the free world insinuate that the U.S. “can learn a lot” from Cuba in the realm of human rights.
In a moment when the western hemisphere needs a Calvin Coolidge to heal an ailing island nation, Barack Obama has given us a Richard Nixon — a public figure who is more intent on sealing his legacy than doing the right thing. Like Nixon’s controversial visit to China in 1972, Obama’s visit to Cuba seems more like a frivolous photo-op than a real drive for change. Where Coolidge showed American power, Obama has shown America bowing down on yet another world apology tour.
Proponents of Obama and his “smart power” diplomacy argue that we must lift the failed Cuban embargo and normalize relations with our neighbors. Yet the President’s new policy and positive public appraisals of Cuba will do nothing but boost Castro’s ego and line his well-padded pockets.
For rest assured, Castro and his cronies own the entirety of the Cuban economy. The deserving civilians of Cuba will not reap the benefit of any intercontinental commerce we encourage between our nation and theirs. Whatever money Cuba makes from trading with the U.S. will never appear beyond the walls of Castro’s palace or make it past Plaza de la Revolución.
In short, neither Cubans nor the United States will benefit from Obama’s pandering to a brutal dictator through baseball diplomacy. As one Cuban immigrant told Brendan Medina of the Miami Herald, “What a shame that when Obama hops on a plane, everything will return to how it was.”
Her prediction has aged well — hours after Obama left Cuba, a protester was arrested on live, government-controlled television for protesting the Castro regime. As aforementioned, statisticians expect 1500 more arbitrary arrests in the upcoming month. By dealing with the Castros and showing them a soft hand, we are now complicit with the actions of this tyrannical rule.
In 2014, Obama’s proposal to normalize U.S. and Cuban relations prompted Miami Cubans to chant “¡Obama traidor!” Judging from their overall reaction to his Cuban visit, these sentiments have not died. Instead, they have been strengthened. For a president who considers himself a great “uniter”, Obama seems to have turned his back on the Cuban-American population with his latest escapade.
— Sydney North is a sophomore studying journalism and political science