A Big Surprise from Obama

Graham Sowa  (Photos: Ernesto Gonzalez)

Graham-2HAVANA TIMES — This week President Obama surprised us with the inevitable: he put in motion what is sure to be a long and arduous 180 degree turn of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.

Here in Havana I came to the quick conclusion that Cuban media outlets were caught completely off guard.

The newspapers went to press without knowing about the prisoner exchange or the diplomatic overtures. Television news was dominated by broadcasters who seemed unsure of exactly what to report, other than the fact that the last of the Cuban Five prisoners were home.

Even by the evening broadcast of the Mesa Redonda, Cuba’s version of a news pundit round table, the commentators were still trying to speak without actually saying anything since they obviously had not received an official party line. I have a feeling that not even the people in charge of writing the party line knew the extent of the changes proposed by President Obama before he spoke.

President Castro’s speech was dominated by the themes of sovereignty and achieving justice without sacrificing Revolutionary values. He made it clear that the last 3 of the Cuban 5 were traded for an American intelligence asset that was imprisoned in Cuba.

graham-5This prisoner swap was a clever bit of diplomatic chess by whoever pulled it off. This yet to be identified intelligence asset gave a solution to the problem, allowing a spy for spy trade and subsequent release of Mr. Gross on what were technically humanitarian grounds. I’m sure no one had a bigger surprise yesterday than the unnamed asset as he or she was taken out of a Cuban prison and put on a plane for the United States. Good morning indeed.

For the most part everyone I work with in the Salvador Allende Hospital lived the day as any other.   When I tried to change the channel from the baseball game to the news a bunch of guys in the hospital cafeteria shouted. In fairness we are close to the playoffs.

So instead I had to run to a friend’s house, also a foreigner here, to watch President Obama talk on live television. The befuddled real time translator of TeleSur sort of mumbled over the parts of the speech that were critical of the Cuban government.

But in the end the President was more explanatory than critical, and even conciliatory to the fact that United States policy toward Cuba has failed. Diplomatic relations will be established, the embargo will be slowly dismantled, and bilateral cooperation will move into previously off limits territory.

graham-1At this point I knew the hardline, anti-Castro community in South Florida must have been fuming. I’m sure that some people’s anger boiled over into frustration in trying to figure out exactly whose flag to burn in protest. In an otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning they lost control of the U.S. policy toward Cuba they have maintained for the past 55 years. The President tried to pay homage to their struggle with his words but the wounds will remain open for years or decades to come.

Staying in Miami a bit longer, I know many people view the Cuban-American community as largely unmovable in their opposition to the Communist Party in general and the Castro brothers in particular.

However I find they are more dynamic than even they give themselves credit for. When I was first reading about the Latin American School of Medicine almost 10 years ago I came across several news articles about how the Cuban community was trying to pass legislation in Florida to prohibit licensure of United States citizen who graduated from the Cuban medical program I am currently enrolled in.

Then a few years later in 2006 the United States Citizen and Immigration Services Director Emilio Gonzalez, himself a Cuban immigrant to the United States, oversaw the creation of the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program. This program has given fast track U.S. Residency status to almost 5,250 doctors who left their official Cuban medical missions to immigrate to the United States.

graham-3Now in 2014 these thousands of Cuban doctors are finding out that the process of becoming a licensed practitioner in the United States is grueling bordering on impossible. In response they have set up organizations such as Solidarity without Borders with programs like “Ready to Help”. These organizations propose to make it easier for Cuban graduates to become licensed in the United States, a move that is completely opposite of what they were proposing only a few years earlier with the American graduates from Cuba.

Obviously the campaign is a long shot, but it does prove that policy changes can provoke dynamic responses from the Cuban-American community.

Strangely absent during Wednesday’s developments was former Cuba President Fidel Castro. The only video I saw broadcast of the Historic Leader of the Revolution was a clip from 2001 where he declared “Volveran!” or “They will return!”. A declaration in reference to the unjust length of the prison sentences of the Cuban 5.

Now with the return of the 5 “Volvervan!” will become yet another historic Revolutionary cry of defiance, right up there with his famous “History will absolve me!” coined over 60 years ago. Look for a book of the same title in the coming months.

By evening time I was intrigued enough with the day’s events to go use internet at the state run internet café. On Facebook I saw that several people who also blog, write, or just follow Cuba news from Cuba had proposed to meet at the corner of 23 and G, a popular park in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood at 5:30pm that night.

I rode by on my bike to scope out the scene at the park after leaving the internet café. About 30 young people were gathered and talking in groups. When I went by an hour or so later the number had dwindled to about a dozen. It is December, and most Cuban’s priority is having enough money to throw a rockin’ New Year’s party with their friends and family. That hasn’t changed.


21 thoughts on “A Big Surprise from Obama

  • Nice piece Graham! I always enjoy reading your commentaries.

  • Fidel did like to borrow from other historical figures when he “coined” a phrase.

    “Volvervan!” is reminiscent of the pledge by the American General Douglas MacArthur when he left the Philippines in the face of the Japanese invasion, “I shall return!”.

    The expression “History will absolve me” has a more, um… shall we say… awkward derivation. It can be found in the recorded works of the 20th Century’s more hated villain, Adolf Hitler.

    “You may pronounce me guilty,” declared Hitler during the trial in 1924 for his failed Rathaus putsch, “but the eternal court of history will absolve me.”

    Say what you will about Fidel, he knew a good line when he heard it!

  • Perhaps Obama needed Cuba to release a spy as a fig leaf to cover the fact Obama was releasing the last 3 Cuban 5 spies in exchange for Gross.

    The blog, “Cuba Confidential”, which follows intelligence related stories, has identified the other spy released by Cuba:

    “The U.S. informant, identified on Thursday as Rolando Sarraff Trujillo by those familiar with his role, had been convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years for helping Washington. He was recently freed and flown to the U.S.

    Undisclosed before this week was Mr. Sarraff’s secret role as an American operative in Cuba who provided critical information that prompted the 1998 arrests of a group of spies known as the “Cuban Five,” intelligence operatives sent to infiltrate U.S. groups opposed to the regime in Havana.”

    Rolando Trujillo was the spy who “provided the information that led to the identification and conviction of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior analyst Ana Belen Montes; former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers; and members of the Red Avispa network, or ‘Wasp Network,’ in Florida, which included members of the so-called Cuban Five.”


  • What’s you point? “Analyzer” is free to speak his mind. I am free to criticize what he has to say. That’s what free speech is all about.

  • I agree that the idea of the straight spy-spy exchange was absolutely brilliant. But does the anonymous spy really exist???

  • I thought letting people say what they want to say is allowing in Canada or the US, something called freedom of speech? Obviously some fellows here thought freedom of speech were all about “freedom of speech that I like”?!

  • And the US ambassador to the D.R.

  • did you also know that in the US, you can be shot at, only because you are black?

  • When these dictator supporters are unable to defend their point of view they resort to throwing our red hearings and straw men. Their support of the regime is a zero sum game in their eyes.

  • Don’t try that cheap shot crap on me: make up some ridiculous and false characterization of my views, and then attack that. Go ahead and search my posts, see if you can find a single comment from me praising Batista. He was a thug, a criminal and a thief. He’s also been dead for decades. Batista is 100% irrelevant to any serious discussion about Cuba today. Only a tool of the regime who won’t dare discuss the real issues would resort to such a childish stunt. Pathetic.

    Why don’t you leftists argue facts instead?

    I support freedom, democracy, human rights and sovereignty for the Cuban people. You have nothing to counter that, so you pull your stupid Batista zombie out of your pocket and try to change the topic. Loser.

    Try again.

  • They certainly couldn’t be any poorer. While basic services like health care and an education ( the quality of which is dubious ) are widely available.Most other things that a Canadian takes for granted are reserved for the political elite. I would say that countries like Brazil, China and India and indeed most of the non Western world have much wider disparities in income. Of course I have never been to Cuba but I am sure that the casual tourists does not see all. While Canada may seem to be a fairer society than the US, Canada benefits greatly from residing next to the worlds economic engine.

  • I am from suiza and yet in kuba for traveling. I am so hapoy for the cuban people and also the rest of the world.

  • Griffin, what you seem to prefer is being a bottom feeder under a Batista style regime. You present as an atypical lover of the pre Castro regime. It is sad to see such mentality continues to fester.

  • Did you know that in Cuba you can be arrested for “pre-criminal dangerousness” or “disrespecting Fidel or Raul”. Are these some of the “good things about Cuban society”. Have you ever heard a single Cuban say “I look forward to stores filled with all of my necessities, I just hope that it doesn’t change too quickly”. “I hope they fix the streets and repair the buses, but just not all at once”. Do the stores where you live in Canada run out of toilet paper or feminine napkins? The stores near my family in Cuba do….all the time. You really sound like a tourist.

  • Invade Cuba? If by that you mean establish a beachhead of WalMarts, Starbucks and McDonalds, then you may be right because that is the only kind of invasion Americans want to do anywhere.

  • Could you be please be specific about which aspects of Cuban society you find so admirable?

    As a Canadian and long time visitor to Cuba, would you accept to be ruled by a one party state with the same 2 people running Canada, badly and brutally, for the past 56 years?

    Would you accept no freedom of speech, no free trade unions, no human rights in Canada?

    The Cuban government has repeatedly ruled out any political changes ahead. The Cuban Communist Party will maintain its monopoly on all political power in Cuba. So your hope that the foolish concessions from Obama will lead to benefits for the Cuban people seems dead on arrival.

  • Who is anticipating the Republicans and anti-Castro Democrats to invade Cuba? That anticipation exists only in the minds of deluded Castro-apologists.

  • I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks.

  • Interesting to read you observations on the reaction of the Cuban people to the news. They’d rather watch baseball.

    You should know, it’s not only the Cuban-Americans of South Florida who are angered by what they see as a sell-out by Obama. Several leading newspapers have written scathing editorials condemning the deal. Even the relatively liberal Washington Post slammed Obama for giving Castro an undeserved bail-out.

    In Cuba, most of the dissident leaders have condemned what they see as a betrayal by Obama, who had personally promised to Berta Soler and Guillermo Fariñas to consult with Cuban civil society before making any concessions with the Castro regime. Obama broke that promise. In the secret negotiations with Castro, carried out for over a year, not once did Obama consult with Cuban civil society or pro-democracy groups.

  • It is probable that Fidel Castro, like his former arch-enemy Ronald Reagan, suffers from serious Alzheimer’s Disease, and this, likely well known by the Obama Administration, played into the timing of moving to normalize diplomatic relations and relax trade relations with Cuba — in anticipation of Fidel’s expected death in 2015, and severely lessening the anticipated demands by Republicans and anti-Castro Democrats to invade Cuba.

  • As a Canadian and long time visitor to Cuba, I am happy for the Cuban people who have suffered long under the U.S. embargo. There are many good things about Cuban society, and I hope change is not too rapid, for the average person to keep up with. I hope it does not create the vast disparity in income that exists in the U.S. while giving an opportunity to the population in general. It will be a fine balancing act, and I hope the Cuban government is able to manage the change for the benefit of all the Cuban people.

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