With his arrival Sunday in Havana, President Barack Obama has formally initiated the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, an endeavor his Democratic predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton failed at. Raúl Castro has done the same: His leadership is more pragmatic, less charged of historical references and conflicts than his brother Fidel’s.
After this trip, there’s no way back, barring unforeseen circumstances. The large delegation accompanying the U.S. President is composed of businessmen, politicians and representatives of associations calling for an end to every provision of the economic blockade against the island. On its side, the Cuban government is not going to back down either. Relations with Washington are crucial to the development of its economy. Havana, which has not bent after half a century of political, economic and military siege, is looking to the model of China and Vietnam, who benefit now from good relations with Washington.
In the runup to the landing of Air Force One yesterday at José Martí airport, there were many developments: the postal and telephone embargo ended, Cuban athletes can join U.S. sports teams, the ability to trade in dollars, the resumption of direct commercial flights and shipping connections, and the green light for American tourists to travel to the island. Soon the longest embargo in history, dating back to 1962, will come to an end. Obama does not hold all the power in the matter, but his breakthrough is like a tornado sweeping over the remaining resistance.
On Monday and Tuesday, the countries will play a game of diplomatic chess. Obama and Raúl Castro met Monday morning at the highly symbolic Revolution Square mausoleum, dedicated to José Martí, who inspired the idea of Cuba’s independence from Spain. Actually, the idea of the island’s independent identity has reignited a debate among Cuban intellectuals in recent months, concerned about a too-suffocating embrace with the former enemy. The issue of national independence is a raw nerve in Cuba. That’s why they continue to seek the reintegration of the Guantanamo military base. Some have called for a renewal of the teachings of Martí and the 1959 revolution.
Tuesday is the climactic day. In the morning, Obama will deliver a speech on national television on the stormy relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a moment expected to mark a break with this past. The venue will be the Grand Theater of Havana, recently dedicated to Alicia Alonso, the Cuban classical dance legend who is still active despite being 94 years old. In the dining room, a large contingent of Cuban society will be present, in addition to the diplomatic delegations present in Cuba. The privilege of a live national broadcast is one previously reserved only for Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
Later that day, Obama is scheduled to meet with representatives of “opposition” groups at the American embassy. In the afternoon is the baseball match — the national sport in both countries — between a Cuban and an American team. Among the spectators, almost certainly, will be Castro and Obama. Wednesday, the Obamas will fly home.
That’s the official program. But impromptu activities can still occur. For example, could there be a meeting between Obama and Fidel Castro? The White House has said no. But it’s hard to believe that Fidel will remain entirely in the shadows these days. There are also rumors that Obama could appear on a TV comedy show. Ahead of his visit, of course, there has been a boom of jokes and comedy sketches about it.
Thursday will be the day for pundits and analysis. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy an event that seemed impossible, while keeping in mind that in the game of chess a checkmate is not the only possible outcome. A draw is possible. Certainly, a new challenge has begun on both shores of the Straits of Florida.