Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Just What Did Obama Achieve in Cuba?

Opposition figures in exile say that they are disappointed with his performance.
By Ernesto García Díaz
  • US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Gran Teatro in Havana, Cuba on 22 March 2016. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
    US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Gran Teatro in Havana, Cuba on 22 March 2016. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

US-based Cuban activists say that they are sceptical over just what President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba last week achieved.

Ahead of the visit, the first by a US president for nearly 90 years, hundreds of detentions, beatings and arrests were recorded, and many well-known Cubans in exile had already expressed doubts.

Orlando Gutiérrez, president of the Cuban Democratic Directory, argued that the “dictatorship cannot be reformed”.

The US-based Assembly of the Cuban Resistance and the Cuban Rights and Freedom Forum also both objected to Obama’s visit from the start, while Silvia Iriondo, the president of Mothers and Women Against Repression (MAR) warned that once Obama left the country “everything will continue the same under the Castro dictatorship”.

Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, said that the normalisation of relations was with the regime, rather than the Cuban people.

Santiago Álvarez, president of the pro-democracy Legal Rescue Foundation, agreed that the visit simply served to legitimise the Castro dictatorship.

“Obama’s government has betrayed the exiles and human rights defenders in Cuba,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the Cubans’ [human rights situation] will improve. I’ll be waiting.”

Some opposition figures said that Obama’s actions and public statements had had an impact, especially he gave a speech at the Havana theatre where he called for reconciliation between Cuba and the US.

“Obama broke the rhythm, the press conference and his speech at the Alicia Alonso National Theatre, shook Cuba,” Roberto Ruiz Casas, vice president of the Forum of
Continental Democratic Promotion, told IWPR. “The Cuban regime was stripped bare, he lifted the veil of the Cold War and empowered the people so that they could choose their destiny.”

Obama appeared to emphasise that message on the last day of his visit, when he said, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, from the Democratic Movement, argued that Obama’s speeches had been full of subliminal messages to the Cuban public.

“Although he didn’t mention current repression, the result of his visit was very positive for the Cuban people,” he said. “He made it clear that the United States does not intend to infringe on Cuban sovereignty. He empowered exiles, he recognised them in a human way and that their intentions were good.”

However, others say that Obama did not go far enough in addressing the question of human rights and politically motivated detentions.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), there are almost 90 political prisoners in Cuba.

This did not stop Cuban president Raúl Castro from denying their existence during his joint press conference with Obama.

When a journalist asked a question on the subject, Castro answered, “Give me a list this minute of political prisoners so I can free them. Tell me now.”

Álvarez said that this reply demonstrated the true nature of the regime.

“Raúl showed what a dictator is,” he said. “He knows that there are prisoners and he denied it publicly. He knows the real situation and he treated it with dishonesty in front of the Cuban people.”

Ernesto García Díaz is a journalist for the digital news portal Cubanet News.