What Obama’s Visit Meant to Cuba

Lead Photo: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
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This week, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 100 years. Back in December 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro expressed interest in re-establishing relations between the two countries. Last year saw them inching closer, with the eventual reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba. Seven months later, Obama stepped on Cuban soil for the first time.

During his trip, he carved out time to meet with dissidents, went to a baseball game, and participated in a press conference with Castro.

Obama – the U.S.’ first black president – also didn’t shy away from talking about race relations in Cuba and the United States, even going as far as encouraging Afro-Cubans to fight for equality. But Obama, who spoke boldly about human rights abuses, also drew criticism for the U.S.’ own violations to captives at Guantanamo Bay.

The POTUS has already headed off to his next stop, Argentina, but we are still processing what his visit means to the people of Cuba. Here’s our attempt to break it down:


Obama talked about race.

Desmond Boylan/AP

In a speech to the Cuban people, Obama said that slaves built both the U.S. and Cuba, and talked about racial inequalities using his parents – his mother was white and his father was Kenyan – as an example. Obama, who critiqued the racial climate in the U.S., explained that he hoped the new re-established relations would push race relations forward on the Caribbean island.

“We want our engagement to help lift up Cubans who are of African descent, who have proven there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance,” he said during his speech on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.

Though the revolution ended segregation at schools and neighborhoods, it didn’t end racism, as Fidel Castro claimed. Still, talking about race isn’t exactly welcomed. The government indirectly banned two of Soandry’s songs that discuss racism. He is allowed to perform the songs, but he will face consequences.

“Well, I’m kind of allowed to sing them, but it puts the success of the concert and my colleagues at risk,” Soandres told Henry Louis Gates Jr. “The police could stop the concert right then and there. I could maybe sing that song, but the next person might not be allowed on stage, and that would be a loss for the rap movement. We want hip-hop to continue.”

Obama’s visit put race in the forefront.


Obama met with dissidents.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the press prior to a meeting with civil society members at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The same day Obama flew into Cuba, the government jailed about 50 members of Las Damas de Blanco – the wives, mothers, sisters, and other relatives of political dissidents – as well as other activists. Every week, the women meet to peacefully protest, but they expected the government to loosen their rules for Barack’s visit.

Some of the protesters were released the same day, but prior to Obama’s visit, some dissidents said the government tried to discourage them from meeting with Obama on his last day in the country.

The group met with Obama for almost two hours to talk about human rights issues in Cuba. “We thought it would be a half-hour meeting, and it was an hour and 45 minutes,” said the head of the Cuban Commision for Human Rights and National Reconciliation Elizardo Sánchez, according to the New York Times. “It was an atmosphere of closeness and trust.”

Miriam Leiva, who founded the Damas de Blanco but left the group, said that no other leader has met with dissidents. The group spoke about political prisoners – a term Castro refuses to use to describe those jailed for their political beliefs.


The topic of human rights was at the forefront.

At their joint press conference, Castro took questions from the audience. He ended up calling on a CNN reporter, who asked him to release political prisoners. A visibly bothered Castro denied Cuba had political prisoners. He even challenged the reporter to come up with a list of political prisoners. Obama playfully tried to get Castro to answer another question, but it only made Castro more upset.

“How many countries comply with all 61 human rights? Do you know? I do. None. None,” he said, according to Reuters.

Online, journalists came up with lists of prisoners and called on the Castro to stand by his word and release them. The next day, Obama addressed the people of Cuba and he encouraged them to fight human rights injustices. After the speech, the New York Times reports, people protested the Cuban government. When police took them to the jails, a new group popped up.

On the flip side, some have also criticized the United States and the Obama Administration for having its own political prisoners.