Notes and impressions on a momentous week in Cuba ( 20th – 26th March 2016 )
This morning my family and I got off the flight from Havana, gritty eyed and exhausted after witnessing what must be the most important 2 weeks in Cuban history since the Missile Crisis. I’ve been living and working in Cuba for the past 20 years and am married to a Cuban. I’ve become used to the slow pace of life in what was a forgotten island, a sleepy backwater where nothing much happens. All of a sudden Cuba has stepped back into the spotlight and it seems that this is Cuba’s moment. No other week since October 1962 has seen such dramatic change in Cuba’s political and social attitudes.
10 days ago, Barack Obama arrived in Havana on Air Force One, the first US President to visit Cuba in more than 80 years. Tropical drizzle muted the Obama family’s walk through Old Havana and the city was eerily quiet – either the rain or decades of authoritarianism kept the crowds of protesters or cheerers at bay.
The stage had been carefully set by the Cuban authorities and a flurry of road repairing and house painting preceded his arrival on the 20th March. His lack of pretension, his warmth and, it has to be said, the colour of his skin, made it easier for him to connect with the Cuban people. When he appeared on the most popular satirical comedy show in Cuba, I think the entire nation fell in love. It was a deft political move which enabled Obama to reach straight into the hearts of the Cuban people and opened the way for his heartfelt and beautifully orchestrated speech in the newly restored Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso. (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/22/remarks-president-obama-people-cuba)
It was extraordinary to witness the President of the United States on Cuban territory admitting that the US Embargo was only hurting the Cuban people and he announced that he had already called on US Congress to lift the outdated Embargo. He talked of the need for reconciliation between the two countries, focussing on shared values and urging the USA and Cuba to discuss their differences openly in order to build a better, brighter future. It was a deeply moving speech, humble in tone and full of hope.
For Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait Obama’s visit marks the beginning of a new era and is as momentous for them as the toppling of the Berlin Wall was for Germany. A nation that has been divided by 90 miles of ocean and bitter political rivalry can finally heal the wounds and begin the process of reconciliation.
In the days preceding and during Obama’s visit there was only one topic of conversation. Obama. Obamamania gripped the nation and every moment of his visit was discussed, dismembered, interpreted and reinterpreted. After so many decades of strained relations, it has been hard for Cubans to believe that a page has been turned. But there is not doubt that Cuba is a different place which will offer far more opportunities for the Cubans to engage with the rest of the world. Some Cubans felt that Obama was coming to show Raul Castro how to run his country, but many, many more welcomed his desire for open discussion and renewed, mutually beneficial relationships. And pretty much every Cuban felt that Obama was right when he said that the future of Cuba was in the hands of the youth.
After a game of baseball between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, the Obamas returned to the USA and Cubans sat back and absorbed the fact that Cuba has finally moved out of the Cold War with the USA.
Defining political moments often lead to equally defining cultural events. How fitting that some septuagenarian renegades should be the ones to provide the show. For years the Rolling Stones’ music was forbidden by Fidel Castro and deemed anti-Revolutionary in spirit but as Mick Jagger told the 1.2 million strong crowd in Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva “los tiempos estan cambiando”.
When the Rolling Stones first intimated that they might come to Cuba to perform a one-off free concert, possible dates were whispered in Diplomatic circles but it wasn’t until February 2016 that a date was finally set…only to be unset again when Obama announced that he too intended to come during the same week. An alternative concert date in May was offered to the band but by this time the 60 containers of audio, stage and video equipment was already being shipped to Cuba. “Los Rolling”, as they’re known in Cuba, graciously waited in Miami until Obama had left and the second private Jumbo jet rolled into Havana’s Jose Marti airport carrying Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie.
Cuba has become so accustomed to being a forgotten backwater that Havana seemed almost stunned by so much worldwide attention in one week. But if there’s one thing Cubans know how to do, it’s how to party. The first party was held by the British Embassy and gathered all the most important
In the new entrepreneurial spirit of Cuba, local “cuentapropistas” printed creole versions of the Rolling Stones logo on t shirts hundreds of thousands of people descended on the sports ground to hear a band that has, until now, had no real connection to Cuban music. The atmosphere was extraordinary and showed the best of Cuba; joyous crowds danced to the 2 ½ hour set of Stones hits. They barely knew any of the songs but it didn’t really matter as Mick Jagger’s eccentric dancing and energy enthralled a city that had never experienced a world class rock band before. Ever the professionals Mick communicated with the crowd in hilarious Cuban street Spanish and soon more than a million people were rocking.
Cubans couldn’t believe the number of foreigners who had come to Havana for the concert and it really did feel like a cosmopolitan, open crowd. My Cuban family group danced with American students, Chinese businesspeople, Dutch ,English, German and Spanish visitors. Cuban Punk Rockers emerged with full multi-coloured mohicans and old school rockers head-banged. Everyone in the crowd had the sense that they were witnessing a page being turned and a new, more open and less suspicious Cuba was born that night.