A Cuban dissident on Obama’s speech: He didn’t mention the word ‘opposition’

Watching on television, Ailer Gonzlez was left frustrated by the US chairpeople terrible address one wages ideological battle while the other seeks to end a war

On the other side of Havana from the pomp and rite that surrounds Barack Obamas speech at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, two Cuban democracy activists are glaring at the presidents image on a grainy television screen.

As he speaks, they fume. The more the US diplomat-in-chief ingratiates himself with his audience, the more frustrated they become. When he mentions change or reconciliation, they sigh in exasperation.

In short, Ailer Gonzlez and Claudio Fuentes both members of the Forum for Rights and Freedom are furious. After years of struggle against the one-party state and the Castro friends, they feel the leader of the free world has let them down by making friends with their foe.

Ailer Gonzlez, a member of the Forum for Right and Freedom, a political protester in Cuba shows off her bruise. Photo: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Gonzlez has the bruises to prove that, for them, the combat is by no means over. By her left eye, there is a small purple mark, her back and shoulder are grazed, and there is an arm missing from her glass souvenirs from the beating she and her husband took yesterday when they tried to visit the neighbouring hotel to get online.( Like the vast majority of Cuban households, they have no internet at home .)

The wounds could as easily have come from a protest on Sunday shortly before Obama arrived when they and dozens of other activists were dragged away from a regular protest, hurled in police car and bus, and detained for a few hours.

Her husband, Antonio Rodiles, is not with her this morning. He is among a group of 13 civil society activists invited to a meeting with Obama after his speech. To make sure that they can get there without being blocked by police as was the case during last Septembers visit by Pope Francis the US embassy sent automobiles to pick them up.

Gonzlez and Rodiles have a reputation for being among the more uncompromising figures in the broad masses of the opposition movement, which is itself more radical than the majority of the Cuban population. Or so it is generally assumed: opinion poll are not permitted on the island.

From the beginning, they have been critical of Obamas deal with Castro. For them, the reconciliation process has find the US give and give, without getting anything of substance in return. The release of political prisoner is, they say, illusory because convictions continue to hang over the heads of those freed from incarcerate and allowed back on the street.

Closer transport links and relaxations of currency controls are, they believe, expand the longevity of the dictatorship which can procure more tourist dollars and foreign investment. The presidential visit is not a step forward in their eyes; it is a legitimisation of the Castro regime and a sign of Obamas softness. It is safe to say they are predisposed to dislike.

Early in his speech, Obama works on winning over his audience. The oratorial master pushings all the right buttons. He opens with a Spanish muchas gracias , quotes Jos Mart( the intellectual father of Cuban independence ), and then pertains a distressed bilateral history through engaging personal anecdotes and family references.

This passage climaxes with a powerful one-liner, I have come to inter the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas.

It fails to impress Gonzlez. This way of speaking reminds me of Fidel. Long-winded and dodging the real issues, she says.

Her frustration at Obamas rhetorical tact only grows as the president runs through a long listing of shared feelgood references: Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, the boxer Tefilo Stevenson, the vocalists Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan, Christianity, cha-cha-cha and salsa.

Then, having shown how much the two nations have in common, the president moves from the culturally sweet to the politically sour.

We should not dismiss the very real differences we have, he says. Cuba has a one-party system. The United States is a multi-party republic. Cuba has a socialist economic model. The United States is an open market. Cuba has emphasised the role and rights of the state, the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.

The activists listen attentively. But they are soon agitated again as Obama lists the measures taken so far to improve relations, which he justifies with a including references to Martin Luther King and the fierce importance of now.

We should not fear change, we should espouse it, the president says to applause in the Grand Theatre. I believe in the Cuban people. This is not just a policy of normalising relations with the Cuban government. The United States of America is normalising relations with the Cuban people.

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.

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