Who will learn the most from Obama’s trip to Cuba?

Now that it’s official that President Obama will visit Cuba in March, the mainstream media in the United States is trumpeting the decision as an opportunity for the president to lecture his Cuban hosts on the proper functioning of civil society, human rights, and democracy. All in expectation that exposure to the American way of life will induce long-awaited change in Cuba.

The New York Times in a February 18 editorial remarked without the slightest bit of arrogance that Obama should “tell Cubans that they deserve better than leaders picked by the Communist Party who are unaccountable to their people.” The editorial went on to urge Obama to promote political transition in Cuba “in which all Cubans are given a voice and a vote”,  oblivious to how the Cuban political system works.

The editorial typifies the media’s view that the trip should be utilized to scold the Cubans for their societal shortcomings, maintaining the long historical tradition of American interference in the island’s internal matters. And apparently the president is the man who has the right to do it as he’s the one who started this whole normalization process in the first place.

What the Times wrote stood in sharp contrast to one of the lone reality-based comments, this one coming from the Newark’s Star-Ledger a day after the New York editorial. The Star-Ledger insightfully pointed out, “Preaching about values is American sanctimony at its worst: The U.S. has sponsored CIA-trained terrorists to blow up Cuban passenger jets, bomb Cuban hotels, orchestrate Cuban invasions and attempt to kill Cuba’s president.”

Obama’s visit is the continuation of his determination to normalize relations with Cuba; a main aspiration is for the Cubans to learn from the Americans just how a proper social/economic system should work, based on the corporate capitalist precepts of the most successful nation on earth – at least according to the Americans. An important design of Obama’s year-old policy is to remove as many travel restrictions as possible to allow thousands upon thousands of Americans to come to Cuba, all in order to overwhelm the locals with American culture, technology, self-evident superiority. Once the Americans show the Cubans the error of their ways, the end of the revolution will occur naturally. Or so goes the theory.

The new approach to encourage Americans to see Cuba after 50 years of being off limits is the latest attempt at regime change, hoping to break the revolution under the consistently misguided perception that the majority of Cubans have always looked for the Americans to provide them with the opportunity. For the past half-century the U.S. has tried to end the Castro government through punishing its citizens, now they are trying it through rewarding them. How effective the new approach will be is open for interpretation, although the U.S. policymakers are banking that contact with America’s supposedly preferable culture and values (of which the Cubans know all about) will finally succeed in ending the revolution’s iron grip.

There’s nothing wrong with the Cubans learning and incorporating the best aspects of American society, whatever they are perceived to be. However, Obama’s trip may have a more substantial impact on the development of friendly relations; that it might actually be the president who learns, first hand, just what are the best aspects of Cuban society. And that he might finally realize that there is a legitimate social contract between the Cuban people and their government, one based on a mutual inter-relationship and not on leadership imposing its control over a fearful and resentful population.

Many Americans who have come to the island the past few months are returning home with a better comprehension of what the Cuban reality is, not what the media and anti-revolutionary forces have negatively portrayed it for the past 50 plus years.

The apparent faults have been well ingrained in the American psyche – communist dictatorship, lack of freedoms, wide spread poverty, human rights restrictions, oppressed population averse to speak their mind to foreigners. Those beliefs can be more easily challenged and put into context when Americans have the chance to talk with average Cuban citizens — who  want improvement in their lives but in the majority want to do it under their rules, not by a foreign power imposing them. The Americans can better appreciate how a small, under-developed nation has been able to build social justice programs while under siege by the world’s most powerful nation.

Visitors will see the poverty, the economic difficulties and the challenges Cubans face on a daily basis. But they will also observe a society that remains community based, one that provides universal health care, free education  and does its best to meet housing and nutritional needs. Most importantly, they will encounter Cubans more than willing to discuss the shortcomings of their system and how to improve it.  Americans returning from Cuba often have their opinions about the island nation changed for the better once they have seen for themselves how that society actually functions. That condition is one of the main reasons why the pro-embargo forces are doing their best to stem the flow of Americans to Cuba – they understand their anti-Cuba message is being lost in the streets of Old Havana.

Obama will have the opportunity to meet with Cubans who still support the revolution and the leadership. Hopefully he may come away with an enhanced understanding that the island’s civil restrictions and economic problems are being exacerbated by American policies designed specifically to harm Cuba’s ability to advance economically and socially. It’s those problems the Cubans face that give politicians in the United States ammunition to criticize – of course never acknowledging the role US policies play in the very social/economic shortcomings they are so quick to condemn as evidence of the revolution’s inherent failure.

When Obama indicates  he will approach the subject of those deficiencies during his visit, as well as to speak on human rights issues, Cuban officials should refrain from pointing out the less than perfect American economy with its emphasis on income disparity, or America’s socially disruptive obsession with guns and incarcerating young black males. And certainly no attempt should be made to contrast American values with the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

It would also be more than a little indelicate to note that the U.S. has a long history of supporting  acts of terrorism against Cuban civilians, an economic blockade that still prevents Cuba from purchasing certain medicines, legislation that that is fining international banks and companies millions for having relations with the island, and prohibits U.S. subsidiaries in other countries from doing business in Cuba. Not to mention the millions of dollars spent to create an artificial opposition to the Castro government, providing the legitimate provision of opposing such ‘dissidents’ who have been shown to have accepted material and financial aid from what has been, up until last year, the official enemy. Not that those activities have ended,  it’s just the two sides are now trying to establish a new, less antagonistic relationship.

So as hosts, it may be judicious not to bring up the disreputable past of America’s regime change strategies, or even mention the sordid present of those continued policies. Simply let Obama  meet honest and serious citizens who support what the revolution is attempting to achieve, and to see those actual accomplishments. If that occurs, then maybe the president will come back with a more nuanced understanding of Cuba – warts and all. And maybe a greater appreciation of how American policies have had such a detrimental effect on Cuban society, its leadership and its citizens.

An element of the normalization process is to transform Cuba by letting in American ideas and values. The Cubans know all about America. In contrast, Obama’s trip might provide an opportunity for him and all Americans to be challenged on their misperceptions of this fascinating island. It is the citizens of Cuba who may end up changing Obama and American attitudes, much more than the other way around.

Keith Bolender is author of Voices from the Other Side (Pluto Press 2010) and Cuba Under Siege (Palgrave 2012).