Obama Gave Cuba a Master Lesson in Political Communication

By Fernando Ravsberg

Obama in Havana.
Obama in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — The US president didn’t arrive in Cuba with convincing arguments but to aim straight at the hearts of Cubans. Without a doubt, his aim was good. He was capable of earning widespread sympathy among the population, even before setting foot on the island.

Having had the White House get in touch with Cuban sit-com character Panfilo so that he could converse with the US president was, without a doubt, brilliant. With this simple gesture, Obama demonstrated that he and his team know the island’s reality in depth.

The Twitter message where he addressed the island with a “que bola” (“what’s up”), using Cuba’s popular and youthful lingo, was a second step towards this emotional rapprochement. To create empathy, one must stand at the same level as the other, become their equal.

Obama greeting Havana residents.
Obama in Havana.

He continued to project the image of a simple, unassuming man when he stepped off the plane with his wife, two girls and even his mother-in-law. The detail may appear superficial for those who are unaware of how important family is to Cubans.

During his first address, he appeased nationalistic sentiments saying the future of Cubans ought to be in the hands of Cubans alone. This is a declaration of principles that, in theory, would put an end to the United States’ self-proclaimed right to intervene in the island’s internal affairs.

It’s also true he met with a forgiving press – his own and Cuba’s – as no journalist thought to ask whether he’d stop financing Radio and TV Marti and dissident groups, which he supplies with tens of millions of dollars every year.

Obama praised the work of Cuban medical doctors abroad and offered to enter into bilateral health cooperation projects with the island. No one thought to ask him why he maintained the express visa program, created to tempt Cuban physicians to leave their positions and immigrate to the United States.

Obama’s first encounter in Cuba was with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has served as a bridge between the two governments on several occasions.
Obama’s first encounter in Cuba was with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has served as a bridge between the two governments on several occasions.

Perhaps it’s because the sympathy he awakened did not appeal so much to the intelligence of those in the auditorium and aimed rather at their emotions. I’m certain the country’s ego skyrocketed when the president of the world’s most powerful nation said, in Spanish, “Cubans can build something from thin air.”

Obama mentioned a number of self-employed persons by name and acknowledged their community work. He quoted Jose Marti and put Teofilo Stevensson on a par with Muhammad Ali. His one mistake, perhaps, was to mention only émigré artists when he spoke about Cuban music.

He did not underestimate the political maturity of his listeners by trying to sell them the American Dream. On the contrary, he acknowledged the race-related problems and the extreme concentration of wealth in his country, while defending US democracy as a tool capable of improving society.

Obama addressed all Cubans on national television, from a podium at Havana’s Grand Theater.
Obama addressed all Cubans on national television, from a podium at Havana’s Grand Theater.

He made no mention of dissident groups, always accused of being “paid lackeys of the empire.” However, he did deposit his hopes in the transformative capacity of individual initiative, small businesspeople and members of cooperatives, who are accepted by the general population.

He was very much on mark when he voiced the demands of common Cubans. “It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.  A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.  Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn. The Internet should be available across the island,” he said.

He went in for the kill when he spoke of the “Cuban dream,” suggesting that these fledgling entrepreneurs can make of Cuba what émigrés made of Florida, as though being a state of the world’s most powerful nation hadn’t had a say in that.

We could take apart Obama’s visit and speeches in Cuba, but the fact of the matter is that his message reached Cubans. The only negative remarks I heard were those voiced on national television, which does not seem to tire of creating parallel realities.

Obama´s visit ended with a baseball game between Cuba and the United States attended to by Raul Castro. Baseball is the national sport of both countries.
Obama’s visit ended with a baseball game between Cuba and the Major League Team the Tampa Bay Rays, also attended by Raul Castro. Baseball is the national sport of both countries.

The new stage of the bilateral conflict is less violent, but the United States’ advantage is enormous. They have an army of public relations, communication, image and marketing experts to advise their politicians, who have immense experience in debate processes and know how to handle the press.

The challenge facing the Cuban government is gigantic and it involves a change in mentality, putting aside old prejudices that prevent it from thoroughly exploring the tools used in today’s world to get a political message across and to do politics in general.

6 thoughts on “Obama Gave Cuba a Master Lesson in Political Communication

  • I’m already on the record in my disagreement with Obama’s policy of normalization with Cuba. He handed Castro a string of concessions and gifts without getting anything in return from the Cuban dictator. He also promised not to visit Cuba until he has evidence of real improvements in humans rights in Cuba. He has been unable to identify any such evidence, and yet still he went.

    That said, given that Obama was determined to go to Havana anyway, how did he do there?

    As Fernando wrote above, Obama gave a master class on political communication. In stark contrast to Raul Castro, who has all the charisma of an undertaker, Obama was relaxed, optimistic, approachable, persuasive and likeable.

    By appearing on the popular Cuban comedy TV show, “Panfilo”, Obama entered into the homes of millions of Cubans and showed himself as a regular guy, not the evil imperialist Yanqui that the Castro propaganda machine paints every American.

    It was a brilliant stroke by Obama to show up in Havana with is mother-in-law. Cubans have a deep respect for family, and many Cubans live with their grandparents, in-laws & extend family, out of necessity as much as by choice. Now millions of Cubans know that the President of the United States lives with his mother-in-law at the White House, something he & Michelle chose to do as a way to help give their children a normal family life. Cubans would see in this act that Obama shares their values, that he is one of them.

    Obama’s speech at the Grand Teatro had several good points, and a few bad ones. One of the better points was when he identified Miami as a monument to the creativity and industry of the Cuban people. To the Castro regime, “Miami” is a curse-word, hurled as an insult and associated with the gusanos and the (long since dead & irrelevant) mafia. Obama shattered that illusion, which every Cuban knew was a lie anyway. Obama said openly and with pride the same thing that millions of Cubans said in private and with longing: that Miami is a great Cuban city.

    The Castro regime will look ever more foolish when they return to bashing Miami. Raul Castro is begging for Cuban-Americans to bring their money to Cuba and everybody knows it. Fidel’s petty rant that Cuba doesn’t “need gifts from the empire” sounds all the more hypocritical and impotent now.

    Raul Castro got a few photo-ops, some tourism cash, and a couple of business deals. But he came off looking stiff, awkward, testy and out of touch with the Cuban people. He’s never had to sell an idea, to be politically persuasive, or to be a leader. He’s a ruler, a dictator, and authoritarian who tells people what to do and that has always been enough.

    But perhaps that day has passed?

  • Duuuuuude, go take your medication!!!! If you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump hasn’t been elected president yet!!!!!!!!!

  • Obama is way ahead of all the Presidents America has ever had but his one set back is that he is Black. When you look at the Bushes, when you look at the Donald Trumps, you realize that when Obama leaves office, the prestige of America will be on the decline. It hurts white America to realize that the most educated President in their history was a Black man and so they are doing their damndest to ensure that history will record him as the lamest. But, what do you expect of racist America? When you hear the utterances of Donald Trump whose only fame to the Presidency is that he has money, but seems to be a replica of Adolf Hitler. When you look at the hegemonic foreign policy of America, the spying on their own friends, the regime change policies like those of Assad of Syria, the elimination of Qaddafi of Libya, the lack of criticism of Israel who is well armed by the same America as it slaughters the hapless Palestinians, the support of its puppets in the Middle East who have their inhabitants vote less and and voiceless and living under the worst human rights conditions, the invasion of Iraq against the advise of the United Nations, capturing its leader , trying him in a kangaroo Court and executing him (Saddam Hussein), the embargo imposed upon Cuba which is against International Law and which has been opposed by the General Assembly of the United Nations year after year, the arrest of the President of Panama, taking him to America and imprisoning him because he dared to demand that the Panama Canal be the property of Panama on whose land it was constructed we can easily conclude that America is a modern day Hitler’s Germany whose intent is complete domination of the world. There are those in America who believe that it was divinely manifested that America be the ruler and of the world. Those of us who are independently minded will conclude that America is the greatest violator of the United Nations Charter, it has no respect for the sovereignty of member countries of the United Nations; it is monarch of all it surveys, its right there is none to dispute! Because of this attitude, it has become the greatest threat to world peace; it willfully creates tensions all over the world so that its military industrial complexes will reap huge profits at the expense of human lives. it speaks with a forked tongue and no one can rely on its word, for its word is not its bond. Its word has no strength! It is quite evident to observe that whether it is a Black well educated and well equipped President or a white ill equipped President like Bush and Donald Trump, the policies will still be the same, for America will still be America, intent on world domination!!

  • I think Bush Jr. got to be President without being a populist or classy. He did not have a crack team either. Obama is light years ahead of the3 Bush clan in classiness, intellect, and populist ideas.

  • I listened to the speech last night and it was brilliant. I’m not a fan of Obama’s policies in the US but he did a great job communicating to Cuban’s and also myself. Nice job all around.

  • You don’t get to be the President of the USA without having a crack team of researchers behind you preparing for a big showcase address.
    President Obama and his team nailed it.
    They got it just about right.
    The right blend of ‘classy’ and ‘populism’ spoken by a man with a heart and a brain and a man of significant oratorical skill.
    Of course Fidel was a great orator in his day and indeed a fine populist.
    He could always pull a rabbit out of the hat. But obviously, as time went by, the rabbits all started to look the same. His younger brother is no orator in comparison, but has managed to take Cuba to a point whereby a U.S President is able to visit Cuba and make such an address.

    Although I predicted that President Obama would try to thaw relations, it is still astonishing to see his speech.
    As well as all the other issues he touched on, the simple fact that a U.S President is in Havana saying that he would like to end the embargo (but that it’s not easy to do so) is remarkable.
    I know that Cubans will be amazed by this.
    And perhaps a little mystified too as Cubans (like Russians) are used to having a fella at the top who calls the shots.
    I have had the privilege of having spent a fair bit of time in Cuba over the years.
    From the moment President Obama appeared as a potential successor to George W Bush, I have never heard a Cuban say a bad word about him.
    The only Cuban I ever heard speaking well of Bush was (quite literally) on his way to the ‘Oficina de Interes’ (now the U.S. Embassy again) to pick up his ‘pro-democracy’ handout courtesy of the U.S taxpayer.

    President Obama made a fine speech.
    Perhaps as an Englishman I’m obliged to say that he’s a great warm up act for The Rolling Stones.

    In serious. If he never ever does anything ever again then President Obama did a fine thing this week by going to Havana and saying what he said.

    Respect to you Mr President.

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