It’s hard to believe that President Obama touched down in Havana yesterday—the first sitting president to set foot in Cuba since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana aboard the U.S.S. Texas, parking the World War I-era battleship at the exact spot where the U.S.S. Maine was sunk during the Spanish-American war 30 years before.
Based on Stephen Crowley’s photo on the front page of the New York Times, it was raining.
And the context for Obama’s historic three-day trip, which extends an effort, begun in late 2014, to write a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations, is far from perfectly sunny: The Times headline next to that photo reads “As Obama Arrives, Cuba Tightens Its Grip on Dissent,” and describes how, hours before Air Force One landed at José Martí International Airport, dozens of arrests were made at the weekly march of Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group. (Elizardo Sanchez, who runs the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, is quoted as stating that the arrests took place “in the moment that Obama was flying in the air to Cuba.”
The process of normalizing relations won’t be easy and is full of contradictions. Yet it’s not disingenuous, may in fact be ingenious, and is simply necessary. Only recalcitrant Republicans can derail it at this point.
That photo above, with Obama holding his umbrella high in his right hand, waving his left, and stepping lightly, others falling in behind, reminded me (and I’m sure anyone who spends time in New Orleans) of a second-line parade.
And it should. Let’s cut the body politic, in the form of a cruel and now pointless embargo, loose. Let’s celebrate the soul that has always connected people to other people across the mere 90 miles that separate Cuba from the U.S.
A truly normalized relationship between the U.S. and Cuba holds promise to relieve great suffering in Cuba and lift many lives. It also holds the potential for great profit for U.S. companies. It can help reshape the political landscape of our hemisphere.
Yet for me, the most tantalizing aspects of the whole thing are cultural: Connecting again an essential link, musically and otherwise, that could never be fully broken but was unnaturally estranged.
I wrote about this potent moment last year in The Wall Street Journal; my piece ended like this:
Pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill learned of the current diplomatic breakthrough while in Havana, where he recorded an album combining his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with Cuban musicians, titled “The Conversation Continued.” Mr. O’Farrill, who was born in Mexico and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is the son of the Cuban composer, arranger and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. Arturo’s immersion in Cuban music began with a personal search for identity but now reflects a broader aesthetic mission that he sees as enabled by renewed relations.
“Now we can begin in earnest to have a healthy relationship in which Afro-Cuban music is not so exoticized,” Mr. O’Farrill said, “one in which we look at each other as inheritors of a common legacy, and as true partners.”
It remains to be seen whether diplomatic relations will, as President Obama announced, “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.” But the policy changes already in motion may help turn such a page for the best jazz musicians of this hemisphere.