Carlos Eire is professor of history at Yale and author of the National Book Award-winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. At Babalú Blog Professor Eire wrote a proposed speech for President Obama in Havana that was posted as “The speech never given, the op-ed never published” In the event, Obama gave remarks to the Cuban people” in Havana this past Tuesday. I briefly disparaged Obama’s speech here; my friend Ron Radosh praised it in a characteristically thoughtful column here. Seeking the opinion of Professor Eire on the speech Obama actually gave, I invited him to comment on it for Power Line readers. Professor Eire has graciously responded with the essay below; we are grateful to Professor Eire for the opportunity to publish his thoughts on the speech. Professor Eire writes:
President Obama’s so-called “remarks to the Cuban people” – delivered in Havana and broadcast throughout Cuba on Tuesday the 22nd of March 2016–were not in the least surprising or remarkable.
It was a classic example of Obamaspeak: a complex, interwoven tapestry of vague platitudes, potentially inspiring anecdotes, artificial myths, and outright lies, laced with several references to himself and a few strands of actual truth.
Nonetheless, the speech was somewhat memorable, for two reasons, both of which relate to context.
The first of these contexts is the intended audience, “the Cuban people,” who are not accustomed to hearing any foreigner address them directly or to hearing anyone propose to them a bright future that is an alternative to the self-sacrificial one constantly offered to them by their dictators or to the somber repressive reality of their daily lives.
So, yes, the speech was definitely memorable because of the identity of the speaker, its content, and tone, which were completely out of the ordinary for Cubans who have lived their lives under the Castro regime.
The second context is the location where the speech was delivered, the so-called Great Theater of Havana, a building stolen from its proper owners and renamed to hide that fact. The Orwellian sleight-of-hand reified by the building’s new name mirrored in many ways what was most significant about the speech: its contrived avoidance of historical facts and present-day realities.
The Great Theater of Havana was built by Spanish immigrants from the province of Galicia in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula. Its former name was “El Centro Gallego” or Galician Center. The building – one of the architectural gems of Havana – was paid for by hard-working, penny-pinching expatriates who struggled to make a better life for themselves and their children in the New World, folk like my skinflint Gallego grandfather and grandmother, from whom the building was stolen by the so-called Revolution without any compensation.
As nothing was said by President Obama about the history of the building in which he delivered his speech, or about the criminal act of theft hidden by its new name, so nothing was said about some of the most disturbing facts of the past six decades of Cuban history, or about the real reasons behind the poor relations between the Castro regime and the United States of America.
A classic example of Obamaspeak, this boilerplate speech consisted of four essential elements: some truths (few in number), several myths (plentiful), many platitudes (even more plentiful), and a string of lies (all braided with the myths and platitudes).
Returning to the metaphor of the speech as a tapestry, let’s deal first with the few strands of truth woven into this artful tissue of platitudes, myths, and lies.
Four truths were tightly woven together in one paragraph, near the middle of the speech. 1. “Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” said Obama, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.” Then he added: 2. “It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.” 3. “A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.” And 4. “The Internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world. “
True enough, for sure. Bravo. Thank you, Mister President, for pointing out the obvious to your audience.
A fifth thread of truth appeared early in the speech, but it was only a half truth: “The Cuban people are as innovative as any people in the world,” said Obama, “we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami.” True enough, but only half true. What he could have said and should have said was this: “If the Castro brothers had not come along, all of Cuba would now be better than Miami.”
And there’s the rub. The speech left out the nefarious presence of the Castro brothers in Cuban history, and the pain and suffering these criminals have have caused the Cuban people.
Which brings us to the myths in the speech.
The entire speech is addressed to a mythological abstraction, “the Cuban people,” and the entire history of the past six decades is turned into a an unreasonable and highly emotional spat between that abstraction and another one, called “America” “Americans,” or “the American people” – a spat that took place because of a nasty mythical beast called “the Cold War.”
Nowhere in this speech do the Castro brothers show up. Nowhere are their many crimes against humanity mentioned. Nowhere is any blame laid on them for enslaving and ruining “the Cuban people” or for poisoning relations with the United States. In their place, another abstraction shows up to play the part of the villain: “ideology.”
As he has done countless times before, Obama inserts himself in history as the ultimate slayer of the “Cold War” dragon, which is always drawn by him as a caricature, a fairy monster of sorts with no teeth and no fire in his breath, whose scales are fluffy and whose wings are as diaphanous as all abstract thoughts. “Ideology” in Obamaspeak, is no real threat to life and limb, no powerful enslaving force, but an illusory phantom from some distant past, at best a puff of smoke that can be driven away by simply agreeing with him about its lack of heft.
To ensure that his Cuban audience recognized his power to dispel this toothless abstraction, Obama – as usual – inserted himself into the historical narrative, telling them: “From the beginning of my time in office, I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.”
Never mind the Castro brothers, or the tens of thousands of Cubans murdered by them, the hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured, or the two million driven into exile, or the nuclear missiles they pointed at the United States, or the soldiers and spies they’ve sent all over the world, or the terrorists they have sponsored.
No. Never mind any of that. The real problem has always been “ideology.”
Which brings us to the platitudes in the speech.
Anywhere you look, it is easy to spot platitudinous metaphors and abstractions in this Obamaesque tapestry. There are so many of them, in fact, that they are hard to tally. So let’s just mention the more disturbing ones.
“In many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years,” he said, “even as we share the same blood.”
What blood? As it turns out, the closest Obama came to identifying that blood was to babble on about superficial similarities between Cuban and American culture, especially in the realms of music and sports.
Obama also spoke of “hope” repeatedly. He even had the nerve to tell Cubans of “hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country.”
What hope, as long as the Castro dynasty is in control? What is this amorphous “hope” or this amorphous “future”? What of this “choosing” and “shaping”? How is that to happen when there is no civil society in Cuba, no rule of law, no chance to express oneself freely, no private property, no free market economy?
In any American high school auditorium, any invited guest giving a speech full of such platitudes would be mercilessly mocked as a pompous windbag by the teenagers in the audience.
Cubans are not dimwits – as Obama himself acknowledged in his speech – and six decades of repression have given them a windbag radar much more effective than that of any American teenager, so one can only guess the intensity of the sarcasm such platitudes elicited from his audience.
Which brings us to the lies in the speech, which are plentiful.
The biggest lies in the speech have to do with history, and all of these falsehoods come straight from the Castro regime’s Ministry of Truth, or from derivatives of its narrative, such as the film Godfather II.
In Obama’s thinly disguised Marxist narrative there is a constant dialectic between an imperialist power (the United States) and an unjustly exploited subaltern (Cuba), and in this poisoned relationship, the United States is responsible for most of Cuba’s ills.
The exploitation, said Obama, began with the Spanish-American War: “The blue waters beneath Air Force One once carried American battleships to this island — to liberate, but also to exert control over Cuba.”
After that, with “control” over Cuba, the United States could not help but behave very badly. “Before 1959,” said Obma, “ some Americans saw Cuba as something to exploit, ignored poverty, enabled corruption.”
This is pure Castroite propaganda, which all Cubans born after 1959 have had force-fed to them as “history.” And in this false “history,” of course, it is always assumed that the Castro are the heroes who rescued Cubans from all of the exploitation.
That an American president should parrot such lies tells us a lot about the character of such a president, and the real-world value of his speech to the enslaved Cuban people.
Then there are numerous bald-faced lies about the present.
One of the biggest of these is the claim that the so-called embargo “was not working” and that it was “hurting the Cuban people.” This could be seen as the linchpin of Obama’s argument for “normalizing” relations. It sounds reasonable. But the truth is that the embargo was not put into place to force the collapse of the Castro regime, but to contain the damage it could do to the United States and its allies. And as far as that goal was concerned, the so-called embargo was indeed working.
As to the claim that the embargo hurt the Cuban people, nothing could be further from the truth. What really impoverished the Cuban people and made them destitute was the insane economic policies of the Castro regime. Cuba has been trading with every other country in the world while the embargo has been in place, and for the past decade and a half the island has been visited by tens of millions of non-American tourists. Yet, despite the opportunities made possible by such exchanges, poverty, deprivation, and repression continued to be the lot of all Cubans.
This lie about the “embargo” forms the basis for another equally heinous one, the claim that: ”the United States of America is normalizing relations with the Cuban people.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. First and foremost, there is no real “normalization” going on insofar as the lives of Cubans are concerned. In fact, repression has increased and the economy has worsened since Obama began warming up to the Castro regime in December 2014. Secondly, the so-called “normalization’ process does not involve “the Cuban people” at all, but only the Castro regime, that is, Raul Castro, his geriatric military junta, and his slightly younger oligarchs.
Obama also lied about the changes supposedly taking place in Cuba, such as the economic improvements brought about by self-employment, which are highlighted with a series of bogus feel-good stories about cuentapropistas or entrepreneurs. Every Cuban knows that the self-employment ruse is one of the biggest lies of all, and no ticket to prosperity or freedom, because the Castro regime owns absolutely everything on the island.
Perhaps the worst lie of all is the one about the change Obama sees himself bringing about in his abstraction “the Cuban people.”
The speech reaches a crescendo with the invocation of the term “reconciliation,” a buzzword of the Castro regime and of the Catholic Church that it controls.
Obama invokes “reconciliation” disingenuously, hoping to link himself to Nelson Mandela and the history of post-apartheid South Africa, where the term was employed to smooth over the testy relations between blacks and whites.
What makes the use of this term incorrect in the case of Cuba – and what makes all talk of “reconciliation” a lie – is that genuine reconciliation involves penance and an admission of guilt on the part of wrongdoers. Those guilty of the worst sins in recent Cuban history – the Castro brothers and their supporters – have not only refused to admit their guilt, but actually remain in power and refuse to stop abusing the human rights of the Cuban people.
Until those who rule Cuba step aside and admit their guilt – and until those at the top ranks are tried in a court of justice for their many crimes against humanity – there can be no genuine “reconciliation” in Cuba.
To speak of “reconciliation” as the payoff of Obama’s many concessions to the Castro regime is akin to speaking of “reconciliation” between a rapist and his victim while the rapist continues to rape his victim repeatedly, with no remorse and no end in sight.
Finally, to sum up his own vapid, narcissistic, and self-aggrandizing rhetoric, Obama closed the speech with a Spanish rendition of his 2008 campaign slogan, si se puede (yes, it’s possible, or yes we can).
Yes, sure. Tell that to the Ladies in White, Obama, please, as they are beaten and arrested every Sunday. Tell that to the political prisoners who rot in tiny cells. Tell that to the Cuban schoolchildren who are fed lies and propaganda disguised as “education” and who have no hope of ever earning more than twenty dollars a month as adults. Tell that to the mother whose son or daughter just drowned while trying to flee on a flimsy raft from the hell that is Castro’s Cuba.
Tell them, please, how anything is possible other than what the Castro regime deigns to dole out to them.
Until there are no more masters and no more slaves, there can be no end to slavery.
For Obama to fling his campaign slogan “yes we can” to Cubans is no different from some Northern abolitionist visiting a Southern plantation to tell the slaves to ignore their chains and think happy thoughts.
To employ that recycled slogan in Cuba was downright shameful, and a very fitting end to a very disgraceful speech.
NOTE: Interested readers will also want to check out Professor Eire’s “Theater of the absurd in Havana: Dissidents meet with the Great Visitor.”