Obama In Cuba

New York Times front-page photo credited to Stephen Crowley/NYTimes

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. Continue reading “Obama In Cuba”

Cuba: The New Normal

Even things that seem necessary, logical and overdue can arrive unexpectedly.

As with President Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century.
In his speech, Obama said:

…We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. And instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

Only Congress can lift the official embargo of Cuba, which the incoming Republican majority in both houses is unlikely to support. Yet, according to the president, the United States will: re-establish an embassy in Havana and high ranking officials will visit Cuba; review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; take steps to increase travel commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba; enable, among other things, the use American credit and debit cards on the island; and significantly increase the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and remove limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people and the emerging Cuban private sector.
All this arrived via considerable drama, involved secret meetings and he involvement of the Pope—as reported in The New York Times:

After winning re-election, Mr. Obama resolved to make Cuba a priority for his second term and authorized secret negotiations led by two aides, Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, who conducted nine meetings with Cuban counterparts starting in June 2013, most of them in Canada, which has ties with Havana.
Pope Francis encouraged the talks with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro and had the Vatican host a meeting in October to finalize the terms of the deal. Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to seal the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct substantive contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.

In his speech, the president said, “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” And this: “It’s time for a new approach.” He lent context to his decision with these words:

Change is hard in our own lives and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past.

Already, church bells in Havana are ringing in celebration. My in-box is stuffed with excited messages from my colleagues, including a good many musicians, about something “we’ve waited a long time to hear.” Furious statements have been fired off by the anti-Castro contingent, including Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (who posted this piece at Huffington Post).
Beyond the effects this sea change will have to relieve needless suffering on the part of innocent Cuban people and lend further maturity, ethical standing and productive thinking to U.S. foreign relations, there will no doubt be a dramatic shift in the context of the culture that has always flowed from the island of Cuba and its essential connections to that of the U.S. As the tone and direction of U.S. policy transforms, the sound of the music that has always bounced between two countries will reverberate more freely and, quite likely, change.
As I recently wrote: “Want to hear the hippest jazz in New York? Follow a Cuban musician. The most exciting storyline right now in New York City jazz and the most invigorating music most often comes from players with Afro Latin roots. That fact, and the specifics of these musical projects, says much about a broadened landscape for what used to be called (but thankfully no longer can) Latin jazz, its elemental value to whatever we call jazz, and to the cultural melting pot that is New York.
In decades of reporting on that cultural beat in New York City, and via four trips to Cuba during the last decade or so, I’ve seen just how deeply and unnaturally the U.S. policy toward Cuba has distorted and at times curtailed this elemental connection. Continue reading “Cuba: The New Normal”