Obama to Follow Coolidge to Cuba, U.S. Media Reports

President Obama continues to keep the promises he made during the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign.  Since coming to the White House, he reopened the door that was cruelly shut by his predecessor and encouraged Cuban Americans to make unlimited visits to their families on the island. He also opened a dialogue with Cuba’s government “without preconditions,” and promised to meet with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro “at a time and place of my choosing.”

“Trust,” we learned in Cuba last week, “is a series of promises kept.”  The President will fulfill this promise when he travels to Cuba accompanied by Mrs. Obama on March 21-22. On those dates, as the U.S. media has repeated ad nauseam in the last 36 hours, he will become the first president to do so since President Calvin Coolidge made the trip in 1928 to address a meeting of the Pan American Conference.

Is there something of value to be learned from Coolidge’s visit some 88 years ago

For more than half of the 20th Century, Cuba danced at the end of a string held tight in Washington’s grasp.  Prior to the Coolidge presidency, an amendment to the Cuban Constitution was adopted which gave the United States carte blanche to intervene, and U.S. soldiers were deployed on multiple occasions to do exactly that. As Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh write in their essential Back Channel To Cuba, “Treaties and laws promulgated by the U.S. military governors gave U.S. businesses unmatched advantages in the Cuban market.”

Coolidge was welcomed to Cuba by the nation’s President Gerardo Machado who, as Lars Schoultz recalls, was nicknamed “the Butcher of Las Villas.”  The U.S. government was forgiving of Machado’s brutality, corruption, and fraudulent reelection to his second term in office, and he was admired by U.S. investors for the stability he brought to the island.

Following a florid introduction by Machado, President Coolidge spoke for over a half-hour, reading a text that exceeded 4,000 words, clearly crafted with the U.S. audience in mind.

“Thirty years ago Cuba ranked as a foreign possession, torn by revolution and devastated by hostile forces. Such government as existed rested on military force. Today Cuba is her own sovereign. Her people are independent, free, prosperous, peaceful, and enjoying the advantages of self-government…

“They have reached a position in the stability of their government, in the genuine expression of their public opinion at the ballot box, and in the recognized soundness of their public credit that has commanded universal respect and admiration.”

Machado must have basked in the glory of Coolidge’s remarks.  Cubans, if they even heard what the man nicknamed “Silent Cal” said, must have been troubled by the contrast between his fact-free description of their country and the reality of Cuba’s politics and economy they knew all too well.

A few years later, Cubans drove the despot Machado into a comfortable Miami exile, and they have waited nine decades for an American President to speak to them again, and to use words that reflect their realities.

We don’t have a single doubt about how the President will be received in Cuba.  In Havana, we saw their eyes glow with pride on the day Mr. Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service; a year later, their joyful tears wet our faces as we celebrated the announcement that Cuba and the United States would resume diplomatic relations. After cheering the President for quoting Jose Martí in an address carried on state television, Cubans described the sensation of a burden being lifted from their country as they saw our half-century long isolation finally coming to an end.

Because they have seen the first American president in their lifetimes treat Cuba with respect, President Obama will surely receive a hero’s welcome from the Cuban people when he arrives there in March.

That moment – covered in real time on global television – will surely be a teachable moment for the U.S. audience, which is already giving the President high marks for his Cuba diplomacy, as the Gallup polling organization said today.  A strongly positive welcome for the President holds the promise of galvanizing momentum for further reforms in U.S. policy. It will also give lie to assertions by the President’s bilious opponents that his rapprochement with Cuba’s government is a self-out of Cuba’s people.

If bilious seems strong, how better to describe the written statement from a Senator of his own party who called the upcoming visit “unacceptable” and against “enduring American values,” or the assertion by another who said that visiting Cuba will be “damaging to our national security interests” and will “send the message to the oppressed Cuban people that you stand with their oppressors”?  The latter comment is drawn from Senator Marco Rubio’s letter to the President demanding that he not make the trip at all.

Rather than sitting out history now, as his opponents want him to do, or spinning fantasy for reality as Calvin Coolidge did nine decades ago, Mr. Obama is striving to do better – to make a nuanced case that reflects the aspirations of Cubans, expresses his devotion to American values (as he did Thursday on Twitter), highlights the benefits to U.S. interests, and respectfully encourages Cuba’s leadership to use the remainder of his term and Raúl Castro’s time in office to address issues that must be resolved to normalize relations fully.

If the President can slice through the noise coming from his opponents, his visit can advance the cause of normalization in the United States by gaining support for more executive actions to loosen restrictions on Cuba and for Congress ultimately repealing the travel ban and the embargo entirely.

Even more, as Sarah Stephens of CDA said in her statement Thursday, “this visit can affect how the leaders and people of both countries decide what they want the definition of normal to be.  Are we neighbors at peace with a wall between us, or are we neighbors and friends with a door that is open and welcoming in both directions?”

The early signs are promising; that rather than pulling a Coolidge President Obama will thread the needle and prepare both countries for a lot more progress in the little time he has left to serve.


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