Ailer Gonzlez and Claudio Fuentes watch Obamas speech in Havana. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian
Gonzlez is indignant. What the hell! If you talk of change, change the regime! she says. This is not reality, it is Obamas vision of the future. Who does he think he is? A guru? This speech is a gift to Ral Castro.
The president then talks of incipient changes in the relationship more space for business, looser travelling regulations, cooperation on medical research then lands another rhetorical tug on the heartstrings. As president of the United States, Ive called on our Congress to lift the embargo.
Gonzlez sighs. She feels the White House is giving up too much without preconditions, undermining the work done by democracy activists.
Obama , now fully in his stride, reaches the harder points. This is the fulcrum of his speech. Im Cubas friend, he says, but you can do more on internet accessibility, on investment possibilities, on employment creation, on exchanging notions. Citizens should be free to speak their intellect without fear, to organise and criticise their government and to protest peacefully, and the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exert those rights And yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their government in free and democratic elections.
Gonzlez nods in agreement. This is the only good proportion in so far, she says approvingly. But there is a difference between saying I believe in this, and stating, Look, this is what is actually happening in the middle Cuba now.
The brief meeting of minds does not last. Obama cracks a gag, saying President Castro has a longer listing of criticisms of the US than he does of Cuba. He then appeals for sympathy and appreciation. Somebody like me, a child who was raised by a single mommy, small children of mixed race who did not have a lot of money to seek and achieve the highest office in the land, followed by the punchline: Thats whats possible in America.
The dissident is quiet at this point. She is waiting for more. But the president is winding down with an appeal to Cubans to build something new, with a reassurance to Castro, a call of unity, and a proclamation of a new era.
The reconciliation of the Cuban people, the children and grandchildren of the revolution and the children and grandchildren of exile, thats fundamental to Cubas future, Obama extol. It is time for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together.
This promptings more anger. How can he talk of a new epoch when we are stuck with the same old despot. Its a contradiction, Gonzlez calls. And how can we forget the past when “were not receiving” justice , no talk of who made all this ache in the first place.
Obama gale up with a bit more Spanish, S se puede ( Yes we can) and another muchas gracias , then goes off to applause and the stress of Guantanamera.
It is a triumphant climax in the theater, but in the living room of the activist, Obama has lived down to low expectations. That was a speech that will perpetuate the tyranny. He didnt challenge them. He didnt mention the word opposition even once. It was exactly what I expected from him. It was terrible.
The disappointment was palpable and understandable. The dissident and the president have different perspectives and aims. Gonzlez, like many democracy activists, is an ideological warrior who feels abandoned mid-battle. Obama is more intent on ending a war.
But there is far more in this dialogue than a single speech. After leaving the theatre, Obama heads to the embassy for a two-hour meeting with civil rights activists, including Gonzlezs husband Rodiles and her friend, Berta Soler, the leader of the Dame in White who consist of wives and relatives of former political prisoner.
These two are in a minority in their opposition to the rapprochement process. And after their talk with the president, even they seem to tone down their hostility and to be willing to consider an alternative approach.
Back at Gonzlezs home, there is a brief press conference. We had a good session. The chairman listened and gave us time to say what we wanted to say, says Rodiles. We said before it was not the right time for him to visit. But it happened. Now lets insure what the result will be.