Three Days with the President Taking Stock of Obama's Cuba Visit

It wasn't always easy, but in the end Barack Obama and Raúl Castro did the wave together in the stadium. Veit Medick was in Cuba, traveling with the US president's press corps. Impressions from a memorable state visit.
US President Barack Obama (right) and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro at a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team in Havana.

US President Barack Obama (right) and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro at a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team in Havana.

Foto: Rebecca Blackwell/ AP

The difficulties on this trip, which many are already calling historic, began at the very onset, at 10,000 meters in the air above Cuba. It was 6 p.m. on Saturday evening when the pilot of our aircraft made an announcement. "We have a problem," he said. "The Havana airport is closed, and we don't know why. We still have enough fuel for two hours, so we'll circle for a while."

The announcement from the cockpit immediately became a topic of conversation for the passengers. "It wasn't me!" said CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. "Let's just land in Jamaica," another journalist quipped, while everyone else speculated how this sudden airport problem could occur, given that the arrival of the Americans had been scheduled for weeks. The mood was comparatively buoyant, probably because everyone on board the aircraft carrying the White House Press Corps was conscious of the special significance of the trip.

It would not be one of the standard state visits of US President Barack Obama, which usually go off so smoothly that they are forgotten within a few days. This trip is one for the history books, a trip to communist Cuba, and a trip to put an end to the longstanding hostility between Washington and Havana. But because the two countries have hardly spoken to one another in more than five decades, the handful of misunderstandings that occurred during the Obama visit are certainly excusable. In regard to the airport problem: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was still in Havana at the time, was supposed to have departed before our arrival. The plane was finally cleared for landing at around 7 p.m.

VIP Treatment for Obama's Press Corps

There are some drawbacks to traveling in the White House bubble. For instance, it's difficult to step away from the group, because you always have to worry that you'll miss a deadline or an important briefing by a member of Obama's staff. As a member of the press corps, you run the risk of viewing the situation too much through the lens of the US president.

There are also advantages, of course. The Americans manage to establish an Internet connection in many places, which is truly a benefit in Cuba. You travel without a passport, because the White House has already collected everyone's documents days before the trip. And you are not too much but certainly a little closer to the things that make the trip so important. You have a reserved spot at almost every event.

One example is the Grand Theater in Havana, where Obama made an appearance on Tuesday. His goal was to give a speech that would show how serious he is about normalizing relations. Instead, the event turned into a drama that effectively embodied the entire trip. The theater is located on the edge of the historic district, next to the National Capitol Building. Normally packed with tourists, the area was all but abandoned on Tuesday morning. The police had erected barricades, and the streets were closed. We were allowed to pass through the barricades and slipped into the building through a side entrance. An employee of the American Embassy greeted us and gave a briefing on various details of the event: the name of the WiFi network, the number of seats, where the bathrooms were located. We took our seats in front of the balcony where Raúl Castro appeared a short time later, to a standing ovation.

Castro clearly enjoyed being feted so enthusiastically. The Obama visit was very difficult for him, because the American president is a popular man in Cuba, and the short socialist, standing next to the tall, worldly politician, looked even more behind the times than usual. Like so many aspects of this state visit, the event in the theater was a duel of sorts. Neither of the two men wanted to lose face.

Castro stood on the balcony, waved to the left, waved to the right, and made a few gestures to indicate that it was OK for the audience to stop applauding. He pointed to the stage, where two large flags were on display, a Cuban and an American flag, and it seemed as if he were drawing the crowd's attention to the real highlight of the evening, Obama's appearance. The 84-year-old Cuban leader clearly felt comfortable in the role of the host.

Brussels Terror Overshadows Visit

Obama had a problem, however: At that moment, the world was looking a little farther to the west. Bombs had exploded in Brussels, and at home the Republicans had already begun to trying to conflate Obama's trip to the Caribbean with the tragedy in Europe. Shortly before the speech in the theater, Obama's staff was fine-tuning a response. It had to be quick, because in the United States patience and terror are more incompatible than anywhere else. They were vigorously sending out emails to demonstrate that the administration was up to speed on the situation. Obama began his speech with an appeal to the world to be as united as possible in fighting the barbarians of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It wasn't particularly original, but it was part of the administration's response, which is critical in the high-speed world of politics.

The main part of Obama's speech was truly interesting. In a very likeable and non-dogmatic way, he tried to paint a positive picture of America, democracy and freedom for his audience. There was resounding applause, especially when he said that he had come to Cuba to bury "the last remnant of the Cold War." He said that a policy of isolation against Cuba had been ineffective. Americans have often been chided for their unilateralism. Obama was unilaterally acknowledging a mistake -- an astonishing approach.

Che and Obama

The theater became quieter when Obama began to address more sensitive issues, such as political constraints and the lack of a private economy in Cuba. It was a bit much for Castro, but a necessary evil. After all, the Cubans also made their points during the visit. Obama had to pose for a photograph in front of an image of Che Guevara, he had to make appearances in the Palace of the Revolution, and during a joint press conference, Castro tried to lift the president's arm into the air to form a victory salute. Now it was Castro's turn.

"There's already an evolution taking place inside of Cuba," Obama said to Castro, who was sitting in the first row. By that point, mostly the Americans were clapping. Those in the Cuban section of the audience, sitting in the right half of the auditorium, apparently didn't dare to applaud. They had clearly been chosen very carefully, and the speech was being broadcast on national television.

Following a half-hour speech, Obama disappeared after receiving a brief round of applause. Castro stepped onto the balcony again. The mood was tremendous, as the crowd chanted "Raúl! Raúl!" The American delegation looked a little bewildered. Socialism was alive and well, at least somewhat.

Throughout the state visit, the mood remained as wave-like as it was in the theater -- sometimes good, sometimes bad, and then good again. On Sunday, when Raúl Castro did not appear at the airport for the arrival of Obama on Air Force One, some Americans did not seem so pleased. On Monday, the two leaders visited the memorial to freedom fighter Jose Martí, and it almost seemed as if they had been doing this for decades "It is a great honor to pay tribute to Jose Martí, who gave his life for independence of his homeland," Obama wrote in the guestbook. The Cubans were satisfied.

At the ensuing press conference in the Palace of the Revolution, when Obama encouraged journalists to ask questions, it was Castro's turn to look dissatisfied. He seemed to be in denial over how important the issue of political refugees is to change in Cuba, and he came across as irritated and patronizing. But at that evening's state dinner, the food was good and the cigars were expensive. It was a gradual approach by the two leaders, and to their credit, the mood was never miserable, not even in the theater.

Of course, Castro was not pleased by Obama's speech in the Gran Teatro. This was also the view held by American journalists sitting in seats where they could observe Castro's every gesture and facial expression. The Cuban leader was "stone-faced" as Obama spoke, and he and the minister sitting next to him had an animated, whispered exchange, the journalists wrote in their press pool emails.

Chewing Gum in Havana

The White House Press Pool is a group unto itself. It consists of a small number of journalists who are not only allowed to fly with the president on Air Force One, but also have access to those closest to Obama at most events. To make the inequity a little more tolerable, they are expected to email their observations to all other journalists on the trip. In Cuba, this provided us with additional details, sometimes so many that our mailboxes were literally overflowing. The quality of the pool information is not always high, although the reports are often very entertaining. For instance, Obama was reportedly chewing gum as he strolled through the historic section of Havana. And when he met with Castro in his palace, the two spoke about their daughters first. But the press pool is an odd feature of American journalism. It establishes a closeness that can make it difficult to preserve the necessary distance. And sometimes the job is simply annoying. It began to rain heavily during the tour of the historic district, and the reporters literally had to stand in the rain while the president ate.

From an organizational standpoint, everything went fairly well during the president's three-day visit to Cuba. This isn't something that should be taken for granted. The White House bubble is enormous. Hundreds of diplomats and security personnel had come to Havana, along with dozens of journalists, and the president, who was sharing Air Force One with around 40 members of Congress and several business leaders. "When we fly to countries like Ghana or Burkina Faso, they just do what we want. In Cuba, however, the government still has a certain amount of pride," says a US official.

No Meeting with Fidel

Obama's advisors were clearly keen to portray the trip as a great success. The fact that Americans and Cubans are speaking to each other again is indeed a wonderful example of the power of diplomacy. Some Americans shared copies of a Cuban newspaper that had printed the entire press conference, including the critical questions. "What more could you want?" one member of the delegation asked. They repeatedly used the word "historic." The approach to Havana? "Historic." The visit to the memorial? "Historic." Obama's speech being broadcast live on Cuban television? "Historic."

Still, Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes had some explaining to do. For example, why didn't Obama meet with Fidel Castro during such a historic event? Well, said Rhodes, no one on either side ever requested a meeting with Fidel Castro. Besides, he adds, a meeting with Fidel would also have been very "backward looking." One can certainly believe Rhodes's explanation, but anyone who has spent a little time observing Obama knows that he would probably like to have met an important figure of contemporary history, no matter how controversial he is.

In their last event together, Obama and Castro met at Havana's baseball stadium, where the Tampa Bay Rays were playing against the Cuban national team. America's major sports leagues have a good eye for both business and symbolism. The game was also a cultural exchange. There was a moment of silence for Brussels in the program, and the Cubans released doves into the sky. The national anthems of both countries were sung.

As politics receded into the background, there was a noticeable improvement in the moods of the two protagonists. Obama was wearing sunglasses and a white shirt, and during an intermission he gave a short live interview to sports broadcaster ESPN. Castro took him to the lower section of the stadium as if they were good friends. The players came onto the field. The fans cheered, and before the game began, a wave passed through the crowd.

Obama held his arms up in the air, and so did Castro. They looked at each other and smiled.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan