HAVANA – President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba was light on immediate results but was heavy on symbolism, and its effects have the ability to shift Cuba’s future, analysts said Tuesday.
“The most important effect of the whole visit, in my view, is the ‘I can hardly believe my eyes’ factor that it is happening,” said Paul Webster Hare, who teaches international relations at Boston University.
The three-day visit to Havana was the first by a U.S. president in 88 years and, more importantly, the first since a communist regime took power after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, turning Cuba into a Soviet ally and bitter enemy of the United States.
Analysts said that by coming in peace and calling for full restoration of neighborly relations, Obama undermined the decades-old logic that helped keep the Cuban government in power as a self-declared bastion against U.S. imperialism.
And if the once-unimaginable visit could be successful, “why not many other things?” Hare asked. “The visit fuels the expectation of all Cubans that urgent change is needed in economic opportunities and the suffocating government controls. Old revolutionary rhetoric and blaming the U.S. embargo for everything is no longer enough.”
The U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place. It has long provided Cubans and their government a powerful motive to unite against the exterior threat.
But Obama addressed that too, with a powerful call on the more hawkish U.S. Congress, led by his Republican foes, to scrap the sanctions.
Obama’s other principal achievement, analysts say, is having been allowed to speak directly to the Cuban people — a first in a relationship long characterized by lack of communication.
That he managed to get a message across in a state where the government controls all the media was even more groundbreaking.
Contact with ordinary Cubans was kept to a minimum by President Raul Castro, the 84-year-old younger brother of Fidel.
But Obama made up for that with a barnstorming speech broadcast live on Cuban television Tuesday, the kind of speech Cubans are unlikely to hear from Castro.
“Obama gives a very good speech. I was never bored, and he had a clear message about hope for the future,” said Freddy Lafont, a 19-year-old guitarist. “I think the speech was evidence that Obama believes that public diplomacy can work with Cuba in 2016. In other words, a U.S. president can effectively engage directly with an overseas public, not just with its government.”
Showing his comfort in front of the camera — in marked contrast to the more awkward-looking Castro — Obama even reached out to Cubans by taking part in a sketch with the country’s most popular television comedy character.
Almost as unusual as a U.S. president addressing Cubans was the Cuban leader having to take unscripted questions from journalists live on television.
A U.S. reporter immediately asked about the most sensitive issue: Cuba’s treatment of dissidents. Castro answered angrily that Cuba does not have any political prisoners, then complained that there were too many questions, frequently looking highly uncomfortable with the experience.
But the event helped show that Castro is making an effort to roll back the old dynamics of the U.S.-Cuban relationship.
“The goal for Obama is to make dismantling of the embargo something irreversible, and for that he must turn Raul Castro into a partner,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a political analyst at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Raul Castro showed “that despite his age, he is still flexible enough to do what his brother Fidel wasn’t able to do.”
The timing was also important. In less than three weeks, the Cuban Communist Party will meet on future policy.
Jorge Duany, from the Cuban Research Institute at Florida University, said Castro will probably push for economic — but not political — change.
“This visit will deepen ties between the two countries in terms of business, transport and communications and contact between the two peoples,” he said. It’s unlikely that this visit will have an impact on electoral reform.”