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?

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