Next steps in Obama's Cuba tango

27 March 2016 - 02:00 By Bongani Madondo

A day before the 56th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, as South Africa' s president was making an emotive appeal for kith and kin to tackle racism, history was about to be stencilled in deep summer colours 145km off the Florida straits, in Cuba.

For the first time in almost nine decades, a sitting US president was visiting the island.

Taking place on almost the same scale as Pope Francis's visit to Havana half a year before, the state visit by President Barack Obama and his family was padded with even more symbolism - aimed squarely at instilling freedom and Western-style democracy.

On an economic and social level, the visit carried deeper expectations, too.

One thing the news media made a big deal of was the rise of long-suppressed black consciousness in a Cuba weaned on la revolución with its assumptions of equality for all. Snapshots of cheering black, brown and mestizo folks, eyes lit and smiles wide as the US embargo has been long, were splashed in the press.

Although a cynic, I too fell for it.

This much I know: two-thirds of Cuba's people are descended from Africans . That's in addition to other gloriously mixed-race people woven out of racial blends of African, Carib , Garifuna and Amerindian natives.


Many of these cultures are traceable to the West African coast, from Angola in the south to what, before Belgian King Leopold's reign of terror, had been the BaKongo empire.

As with the United States of America, the story of modern-day Cuba is the story of slavery.

It is the story of resistance, of conquistadors and of the conquered: of blood-spilling revolutions, brutal suppression and of romance, idealismo and pride.

Twenty years ago, before any possibility of ending the embargo was conceivable, a band of African descendants, geriatrics from old "Habana", met at the socialist government's own Egrem studios at the behest of a rock renegade from LA, Ry Cooder.

Under Cooder's promotion and guidance in the West, the Buena Vista Social Club oldies and the eponymous film they featured in surged across the world. Soft power and unassigned cultural diplomacy had once again ventured where politicians dreaded.

Wim Wenders's documentary and its soundtrack drew the world's attention to an all-but-forgotten world of lean material possession and pride.

It was a cinematic paean to island jazz trapped in the same time warp as the 1930s Buicks and Chevvies huffing and puffing through Havana.

Obama would have known about all this. Which is why, on the second day of his visit the p resident - who perhaps does not make enough racial gestures in his own country - made a meal of Cuba's race fissures and social inequality.

For South Africa, Cuba's story of race has never been a small deal. Cuba, more than any of the Cold War top brass abroad - and with impressive numbers of black infantrymen in strategic command - played an instrumental role in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid.

It achieved this by making nonsense of Pretoria's perceived military invincibility on the continent, defeating the Boers and their minion, Unita, at Cuito Cuanavale, among the bitterest battles in modern warfare.

Decades later, South Africa might have played host to an event that birthed the opportunity for the US and Cuba to start eyeing one another with deep interest.


In late December 2013 Obama, a keynote speaker at his hero Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Soweto, found himself in close proximity to Cuba's new leader, Raúl Castro.

Mandela had got along pretty well with the brothers in Havana, especially Fidel, who he made a show of publicly embracing soon after his release from prison, to the consternation of the local media and brow-twitching in Western diplomatic circles.

In what many misread as the sort of gesture Mandela would have coaxed out of both of them, Obama rose to shake hands with Raúl, the less garrulous of the 1959 revolution's leaders.

It was an almost innocent, yet nonetheless strategic, political manoeuvre. Obama, a politician gifted in symbolism and gestures, could not waste such a golden opportunity and another go at history.

He had, as early as 2009, already lessened restrictions on Cuban-Americans sending money home to an economy that had been left sclerotic by the fall of its benefactors, the Soviets, in the early 1990s.

Still, the hawks on both sides of the ideological divide downplayed it as a politically ambivalent gesture.

But that small matter of wiring money across the Florida straits, and that little gesture in Soweto, might have conspired to set the stage for the political tango Goliath and David engaged in.

block_quotes_start No one should be blinded by the rumba in Obama's step: only the US Congress can vote to dismantle the embargo and restore legal and other relations block_quotes_end

There followed prisoner releases and swaps, secret negotiations and then, this week, Air Force One's historic landing.

The visit signals not quite the first, but by far the biggest and most historic step in the alteration of the geopolitical land- and airscape of North, South and Central American politics and culture.

The grand gesture itself raises major issues: is this just a symbolic outing for the first family?

No one should be blinded by the rumba in Obama's step: only the US Congress can vote to dismantle the embargo and restore legal and other relations.

However, Obama retains the executive power and political might to sway things in that direction.

With a restoration of relations come responsibilities on both sides.


Cuba must encourage a space that is politically conducive to an ideologically alternative outlook.

It should also create an enabling environment that, while jealously protecting Cuban labour from exploitation, encourages a sustained stream of foreign direct investment.

It should, of course, deal with the racial ghost that was swept under the revolution's carpet.

These developments shouldn't be linked to the lifting of the embargo. Cuba should have been halfway along the path to such reforms on its own, aeons before Obama set foot in Havana.

But it is not like Cuba has been sitting there wallowing in self pity for the past 54 years of the cruel US embargo.

When it wasn't depleting its resources coming to the material and military aid of every other faux-radical movement and government in the world, Cuba managed to build a literacy rate of 99.8%.

block_quotes_start The answer might lie in the story of the quietest player in all this: a man adoringly and once fearfully known by his first name, Fidel block_quotes_end

The healthcare system, with its freedom from a pharmaceutical economy, and even with its crumbling infrastructure, is still among the best in the world. Cuba's infant mortality rate is lower than the US's.

There is no visible illegal drug trade, in sharp contrast to the cartel-beset societies of just about every Central American country.

These achievements do not make Cuba some kind of Shangri-La. F ood is highly rationed. The lighter-skinned and politically connected families, just as was the case during the degenerate and Mob-infested Fulgencio Batista reign, leverage their connections to maintain their grip on power and privilege.

But Cuba is not the only one that should have to deal with these complexities.

How about Obama taking us into his confidence, for example? For now, it's all flash. What is he prepared to do for Cuba and with Cuba?

For example, could this black p resident, who has nothing to lose at this stage, extend p residential clemency to someone who is both a symbol of black liberation and on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list, African American r evolutionary Assata Shakur? She has long been exiled in Cuba.


Could he start discussions on how the US might one day hand Guantánamo Bay back to the Cubans?

Can he genuinely ask the powerful old Cuban elites, now a powerful lobby in Miami and Washington, to calm down and - if indeed the spirit of Cuba throbs in their souls as many claim - to perhaps contribute meaningfully to la reconstrucción de la casa Cuba (rebuilding the house of Cuba), instead of giving it a bad rap overseas?

This is expecting way too much from Obama.

But could he have done more?


The answer might lie in the story of the quietest player in all this: a man adoringly and once fearfully known by his first name, Fidel.

In 1953, following a futile attack on the Moncada Barracks in the town of Santiago de Cuba by his rebel forces, Fidel was locked up by Batista's US-backed army.

At his trial Fidel, being a lawyer, represented himself.

Awed and overwhelmed by his oratorical powers, the authorities remanded his case to a cramped room to minimise the audience for his striking defence.

The oration itself would become the basis for the clandestine pamphlet History Will Absolve Me, which was distributed by his compañeros while he and his brother Raúl were incarcerated in the Isle of Pines.

Those are the words Obama might have recalled before he led his family out of Havana just before Easter.

Will history "absolve" Obama on the question of Cuba?

Hasta la vista, Obama! See you later.

Madondo is a social and cultural critic. His new book, 'Sigh, the Beloved Country', will be published by Picador Africa this year.