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Why Obama Needed To Go To Cuba

It would be nice if we could simply deal with oppressors from a distance, or ignore them altogether. We can't.

When presented with images of Cuba, we often notice the cars first. They are relics from a different America, the one that created the trade embargo and harbored apocalyptic fear of Communism. It’s tempting for us, as Americans, to see those cars as delightful anachronisms, for them to be nostalgic distractions from the Castro regime’s lasting oppression and Cold War isolation. Even when sharing a frame with global icons, as they do in those photos of Air Force One descending over a dilapidated Havana neighborhood on Sunday, the bright blue cars stick out as much as the president’s plane does. Take the cars out and it could be any struggling community hit hard by housing discrimination and the departure of industry. These cars, not the people or their homes, are what distinguish those images of Cuba from Cleveland.

As President Obama concluded his historic visit on Tuesday, the first by a sitting American head of state since 1928, he did so in a cultural moment that sees us more acutely acquainted with images of struggle than perhaps ever before. We’ve come to recognize it in the streets of Baltimore, under the faucets of Flint, and in the faces of Syrian refugees fleeing for a better life. That is a struggle Cubans have long known, now further illuminated under a presidential spotlight. Most Americans support the thawing in diplomatic relations with Raul Castro that Obama has pushed for more than a year; a solution to the stalemate between the two nations is long overdue, and embargoes that serve only the stubbornness of American politicians aren’t helping Cubans gain greater access to free expression or due process.

The reason Obama’s visit ends up mattering is visibility. Having our lens trained not just on Cuba but on its people may be the true tipping point that helps further a human-rights campaign there, a process no one pretends a three-day presidential visit will solve. As we were reminded by Monday’s not-entirely-successful meeting and cringe-worthy limp-arm moment of triumph shared by the two leaders, this will take a lot more time. But this “inspiration factor” can’t be underestimated, and it works both ways. The president’s visit clearly meant a lot to black Cubans who live in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s failed attempt to erase systemic racial bias. But as powerful as the image of Obama strolling through Old Havana with his wife and daughters may be for all Cubans, it could have an even more striking impact on young people here in the U.S.

“President Obama would not be doing this if he felt he didn’t have some support from Cuban Americans,” says Julio Ricardo Varela, editor of LatinoUSA.org, NPR’s Latino weekly radio show. “It is a risk that could pay off for the United States, but the jury is still out. Change is extremely messy, especially when the history of U.S.-Cuba relations has led to tragedy in many instances, both for Americans and Cubans. But as the nation becomes more and more Latino, Obama’s shift in Cuba policy could open the door to a greater emphasis on Latin America.”

That potential for progress comes at an emotional cost for Cuban exiles and their descendants now living in America. Through the lens of his own parents’ experience, Miami Herald sportswriter Dan Le Batard wrote critically of Obama’s visit and Tuesday’s exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays, which will be attended by both the president and former New York Yankee Derek Jeter. “America extends its hand toward a dictator who has the blood of my people on his own,” Le Batard wrote on Monday. “And now my parents, old exiles, have to watch Obama and Jeter and ESPN throw a happy party on land that was stolen from my family ... as the rest of America celebrates it, no less. That's going to hurt, no matter how you feel about the politics.”

No Google announcement about wiring the island for Internet access or captivating ESPN visuals from a Cuban baseball stadium will help ease the pain of those affected, nor will it necessarily aid the objectors in Cuba who are still jailed for expressing themselves. More than 50 protesters led by the Cuban dissidents Ladies in White were arrested in advance of President Obama’s arrival. That’s sickening, but the president also made a meeting with dissidents a condition of his visit. There were indications that Cuba’s government was seeking to thwart it, but it remained scheduled for Tuesday.

“Even with the painful history that has impacted the lives of so many of my Cuban American friends and the fact that Cuba is still a third-rail issue, President Obama’s visit is incredibly noteworthy, almost transformative,” Varela told MTV News. “Americans rarely get to see images of presidents visiting Latin American countries, and any time media coverage saturates us with the notion that yes, there are other countries in this hemisphere, that raises awareness as global citizens. We as Americans can begin to have serious discussions about U.S. policy in Latin America that goes beyond just building new hotels and getting better Cuban cigars.”

I hear critics like Senators Ted Cruz and Robert Menendez when they critique the president’s trip. But while criticisms of whatever concessions he has obtained to this point may prove valid, the idea that Obama’s visit there alone legitimizes the Castro regime seems overblown, especially in lieu of any better alternatives. A presidential visit is less a gesture than a diplomatic tool; the applause heard throughout Cuba wherever Obama went is a sign that it was well received by the people. And besides, the U.S. cannot limit its diplomatic sorties to countries that abuse human rights but also have things we need (like oil).

The American public and the next administration should continue progressing in relations with Cuba well after Obama’s presidency is over, but due to both his symbolic and tangible powers as president, we needed Obama to get this process started. It isn’t a historic moment if he’s not there, and without that moment, Cuban citizens and their struggles for liberty aren’t back in the spotlight. Moreover, the visit of a young, popular president and his young family helps grab the attention of millennial observers both in Cuba and the States — and they are the ones who will be key to continuing a struggle for Cuba’s freedom that may very well outlive the Castro brothers, and perhaps even Obama himself.

It’s one thing to talk or theorize about oppression, and another to see and hear it. We witnessed what a difference it made in Flint, for instance, when we began seeing brown water and sick children in news reports. Why not Havana? The kind of change Cuba needs doesn’t come from ignoring those who seek to oppress or wishing them out of existence. It begins with the kind of imperfect yet landmark moments like Obama’s visit this week. To have the necessary import, we need presidents to author them.