March 22nd, 2016, is a day that most young people in Cuba should remember. On this day, the President of the United States and leader of the free world, Barack Obama, spoke to them directly on his historic visit to Cuba. In his words, with the grace and eloquence only he could deliver, Obama said: “I want the Cuban people — especially the young people — to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope; not the false promise which insists that things are better than they really are, or the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow. Hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country.”
This trip jump-started diplomatic relations between both Cold War enemies. It led to the “Cuban Thaw”, an Obama-led policy in which both countries would hit the reset button and open up travel and commerce for Americans for the first time since the Cuban embargo began in 1960. The new policy was supposed to signal to everyone and the world that Cuba was open for business and America was first in line.
In that time since his historic visit, not only did Cubans go back to visit their long-lost family members, but major celebrities—from Beyonce & Jay-Z to Kim Kardashian & Kanye West—went to Cuba as well, flooding their Instagram pages with pictures of 50s-era Chevrolets, pastel-colored houses, and smiling locals. Despite the embargo, there were also billions of dollars sent from Cuban-American to their loved ones that ended up in the banks controlled by the Cuban military and exchanged back to Cubans on the island—with a 10% tariff and in currency (CUC) that’s useless outside the communist-run island.
While it seemed that every celebrity and American tourist could visit the island and use their dollars to stay at fancy hotels, buy cigars and drink the best rum, Cubans—especially those Obama spoke to directly to heed the call of freedom cannot afford a night stay at any hotel. The four-star Ambos Mundos charges $173 a night in high season — more than eight times the average monthly state salary of about $20. And for those Cubans tired with the oppressive communist regime and their lack of future, the sacred right of freely leaving the country—a right afforded to every citizen on earth except those living under clear-cut tyrannies—was honored solely at the discretion of the regime, who wielded exit visas as yet another one of its repressive weapons over its people. On January 2017, the Obama administration, in its acknowledgment of the desperation of the Cuban people to flee their dictatorship by any means necessary, cruelly terminated the automatic granting of parole to Cuban refugees coming through the Florida-Straights, ending a policy of welcoming Cubans as refugees in effect since the early 1960s.
President Trump unveiled his Administration’s Cuba policy in 2017 after taking office, issuing a national security presidential memorandum that introduced new sanctions, including restrictions on transactions with companies controlled by the Cuban military. By 2019, the Trump Administration had largely abandoned engagement and significantly increased sanctions to pressure Cuba on human rights and for its support of the totalitarian Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, before leaving office, the Trump State Department again designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terror “for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.”
Fast forward to July 11th, 2021, where on a seemingly random Sunday, Cubans spontaneously took to the streets in a primal cry for freedom in a way their ancestors did with the famous “Grito de Yara” that lead to the First Cuban War of Independence. Young men and women from Santiago to Pinar del Rio gathered to chant for “Libertad” (Liberty) and “Patria y Vida” (fatherland and life), which is a direct rebuke of the official Communist party slogan of “Patria o Muerte” (fatherland or death). Many waved American flags and pleaded with the United States to intervene and stop this potential genocide from snowballing. All this at the risk of 7 years in prison just for peacefully protesting against the regime.
In the days after these protests began, the regime acted with brutal and reckless acts of repression. Miguel Diaz-Canel, the head of the Cuban communist party, called for an all-out civil war and ordered citizens to partake in the repression of the peaceful protestors. Phones have become the ultimate self defense weapon in counteracting the official propaganda —the videos coming daily showing innocent protestors being shot with live ammunition or beaten down. Viewers of these videos saw the heartbreak as mothers witnessed their children kidnapped from their homes for protesting; many were taken and, against their will, conscripted into the Cuban military. There are still 542 Cubans as of now who remain missing since that fateful Sunday —most of whom are of Afro-Cuban descent and with no families in the US who can offer monetary support.
It has been five years since Obama spoke to a packed house in Havana, and there has been no statement of support or solidarity with these peaceful protestors from the man himself. In the days since the #PatriayVida movement started, Obama has offered messages of support for the DREAMers (young people who came to the US illegally), commented on US voting rights (Cuba hasn’t had a free or legitimate election in over 60 years), and managed to shill his new book with Bruce Springsteen on his various social media channels. But not a peep from the man to the very Cubans he may have once inspired to shout the demands for freedom that are still shaking the bloodied streets of Havana, Santa Clara, and every other corner of the island.
You may ask, “well, why is the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner not saying a word?”. Is he bidding his time for the proverbial cigar smoke to clear? Did he go to Cuba to truly support the Cuban people’s struggle for freedom or just another item on his “bucket list“? Can he really be as vapid as all the other celebrity tourists who post about their trip to Cuba but never about the actual struggles Cubans face?
Or is his silence signaling something else?
It could be his time in Cuba ended up being more business than diplomacy—Raul Castro taking his American counterpart to a baseball game the way a broker might take out a new client to see the Yankees. If it’s hard to imagine what kind of business is at stake for the Cuban regime, speak to any Cuban that has had to renew a Cuban passport, or use a remittance service to send money, or send a package of medicine and basic necessities. All of these types of businesses as well as every other foreign entity that does business in Cuba must do so as a joint venture with the Cuban military.
In his speech, Obama also called for an end to the US embargo on Cuba that he blamed as the reason for the economic hardships. Try still telling the protestors about the horrors of the embargo when they are living in dilapidated homes scrambling for food while the heads of Cuba’s communist party live in lavish estates and never have to worry about missing a meal. What they’ll tell you is that the only embargo in Cuba is the one the communist regime has on its own people, whom the regime views—yesterday, today, and forever as its personal property. Eleven million hostages used as marionettes on a stage before a global audience too gullible (perhaps willfully) to acknowledge what has been evident for six decades —The Cuban regime is illegitimate—to its people, to the world, and to its very self in running a sixty-two-year-long Ponzi scheme disguised as a benevolent socialist experiment.
It shouldn’t be hard to understand this if you are a steadfast compassionate humanitarian who sees the Cuban call for freedom as a fundamental human right. But this truth which almost all on the island know, can be inconvenient if you are not trying to mess up the money bag in this “newly expanding market“. If it is business as usually potentially Obama’s former Veep, now the new leader of the free world, Joe Biden, is looking at this movement as an opportunity to return to the Cuban Thaw doctrine of open business for the Cuban military elites and the communist party while civil society gets the crumbs of freedom.
“It will be more likely that the young people of today will be able to live with dignity and achieve their dreams right here in Cuba” said Obama closing his speech that morning in Havana. The young protestors still risking it all for their chance at freedom shouldn’t wait for Obama’s support to live out those dreams in a free Cuba, but they also should never forget his deafening silence now either.