Sunday, April 26, 2009

Send the First Lady to Cuba

Get your bags packed, Michelle

An idea occurred to me while I was mowing the lawn: Why not send Michelle Obama to Cuba?
The U.S. and Cuba have been at odds for a half century. Bold steps are needed if the two countries are going to have better relations. Personal contact is needed. Changing a few regulations isn't enough. Reading a stack of briefing papers isn't enough. Someone from the White House needs to go to Cuba. Barack Obama should go, eventually. But his plate is full.

The First Lady isn't just sitting around, of course. But if Michelle Obama is going to be remembered for more than her fashion trends, she has got to do something spectacular. And a visit to Cuba would be spectacular.
A Michelle Obama trip to Cuba would recall Jacqueline Kennedy's famous 1961 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. It would capture the world's attention. It would further help restore respect for America abroad. It would show that the U.S. government is about tolerance and cultural sensitivity, not arrogance and intimidation. (If you agree but don't want to read to the end of this post, click here to go straight to a White House petition to send the First Lady to Cuba).
I'd be shocked if Barack and Michelle Obama had no interest in traveling to Cuba. Most of the Americans I talk to are at least curious about the island. 

Cubans are among the friendliest people in the world

I lived in Cuba from 2000 to early 2005, when the Dallas Morning News closed the bureau I ran. Since 1994, I've traveled to Cuba at least 55 or 60 times - I haven't really kept track. And people who know I go there often ask me what it's like. They've heard stories about Cuba, but have never traveled there. They're curious.
And why not?

Cuba is not some garden-variety Caribbean island. It has a certain mystique. It has a rich history and heritage. It's been at or near the center of pivotal events in American history for more than 100 years.

Havana's Hotel Nacional

Cuba is a fascinating social and political experiment that's been off limits to most Americans since 1959. You don't have to agree with Cuba's political system to travel there. But it may open up your eyes and give you a new perspective on your own country.
Michelle Obama would be an ideal emissary to Cuba. She's bright, articulate and sensitive.
And if she does go, she ought to meet with a variety of people. The Cuban government shouldn't set her entire agenda and neither should the State Department or the anti-Castro forces in South Florida.
If she goes, she should get more than a dog-and-pony show highlighting everything that the Cuban government would like her to see.
She should meet with members of Cuba's political opposition, ranging the Laura Pollan, the head of Ladies in White, to dissident leader Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former economic advisor to Fidel Castro who has served jail time for activities.

Laura Pollan

Martha Beatriz Roque
Oscar Espinosa Chepe

Michelle should also meet Yoani Sanchez, whose the Generación Y blog has brought her international acclaim.

Yoani Sanchez

But the First Lady should also seek out other points of view, meeting, for instance, with relatives of Cubans killed in terrorist attacks, former Cuban fighters who defending the country during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and perhaps ex-rebels who took part in the attacks on the Moncada barracks in 1953.

I imagine that Fidel Castro would go out of his way to see Michelle Obama if she were on the island. And the First Lady should see him. Such a meeting would break new ground.

Fidel Castro

Michelle Obama should also try to meet Cubans who aren't mixed up in controversy or politics. These people range from Olympic athletes and legendary musicians to filmmakers, artists, poets, dancers, teachers, historians and others.
Don't worry, Michelle, If you need help with your agenda, I'll help out. I've already started compiling a list of people for you to meet. :)

I'm sure Jorge Fis, Cuba's former national judo champion, would enjoy meeting the First Lady
Michelle Obama could also sit down with Cuban author Marta Rojas, who has been writing about Cuba for more than 50 years.
Michelle could take in a fashion show, tour the National Museum of Fine Arts, ride along the Malecon in a Coco-Taxi, climb to the top of the lighthouse at El Morro, visit the old Hemingway estate, tour a maternity ward in Old Havana. The possibilities are endless.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter traveled to the island in 2002

I was in Cuba when former First Lady Rosalynn Carter visited the island in April 2002. Photos are here and here.
First Ladies don't seem to get to Cuba all that often.
Edith Carow Roosevelt went to Cuba with her sister Emily in March 1900 before her husband Theodore became president, according to American First Ladies. Theodore Roosevelt had recently been elected governor of New York. His wife and her sister went to Cuba as guests of Leonard Wood, military governor of Cuba from 1899 to 1902.
As First Lady, Edith Roosevelt went to Panama in 1907. According to the National First Ladies' Library, she was the first incumbent First Lady to venture outside United States.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson had a higher profile, going with Woodrow Wilson to the Paris peace conference in 1918, the library said.
Helen Taft had a strong Cuba connection, but I don't know if she ever went there. She married William Howard Taft in 1886. He became war secretary and was provisional governor of Cuba from Sept. 29, 1906, to Oct. 13, 1906. He was elected president in 1909.
Grace Coolidge went with her husband, Calvin Coolidge, to Havana in January 1928. She "enjoyed the trip with her usual gusto, but after their return, she became so ill that her husband was afraid she might die," according to the book, American First Ladies. (Don't worry, Michelle. Grace Collidge could not handle her mojitos, but I have faith in you).
Calvin Collidge had a better experience. In the opening address of the Pan-American Conference, he spoke of "the heritage of the people of Bolivar and of Washington" and urged:
We must lay our voyage of exploration toward complete understanding and friendship. Having taken that course, we must not be turned aside by the fears of the timid, the counsels of the ignorant, or the designs of the malevolent.
Despite such words, many Americans have been wary of Cuba.

I don't know of any current or former First Ladies, other than Rosalynn Carter, who have been to the island since 1928. But I did only a cursory Google search. There may have been others. If anyone has any additional details, let me know and I'll post the information.

Meantime, try to imagine Michelle Obama as an emissary to Cuba. And if you would like to send the First Lady to Cuba, please sign this petition, which is addressed to the White House.

Now I've got to go back outside and finish mowing the lawn.


Orlando Furioso said...

I think it is spectacular idea, but only if she is able to meet with the political missioners and dissidents, and the castro's are only the afterthought.

alongthemalecon said...

I agree that if she were to go and not meet with members of the political opposition it would be a huge mistake.

Anonymous said...

Seems like we're always trying to "break new ground" with the Castro Regime, yet nothing ever really changes.

The Pope went there in 1998. Things were supposed to change.

Ex-President Carter went there in 2002. Things were supposed to change.

They just had a Congressional Delegation spend some time there and urge the U.S. to be more conciliatory towards Cuba, with The Maximum Leader feeding them a spoonful of sugar and asking them personally what he can do to help poor ol' President Obama and things were looking good for some of that promised change.

But no sooner had Raul made a grand offer to put everything on the table as far as bilateral discussions with the U.S. than The Maximum Leader writes one of his Reflexiones and tells everyone not to get ahead of themselves and think that things are going to change anytime soon.

Sound familiar?

What's the one constant in all of these scenarios?

Fidel Castro.

It is not in his interests to change ANYTHING. He's a master at playing on people's expectations and hopes. He talks a great game, but when push comes to shove he does nothing.

In theory, it's a great idea to send the First Lady there as an emissary. But it would do no good in the long run. Of that, I am confident.

The country of Cuba is like a cocktail party where somebody's drunk uncle shows up and refuses to leave. Everyone's standing around looking at their watches, but nobody's saying anything.

Bringing another VIP to the party isn't going to make him leave any earlier.

alongthemalecon said...

I know I'm an eternal optimist thinking Michelle Obama could spark some sort of change. I know I may be dreaming.
But I don't think the two sides have enough contact with each other. Maybe some high-level personal contact could lead to a bit more trust and understanding.
It could be, as you say, that as long as Fidel Castro is around then nothing will change.
Hard-liners on each side of the Florida Straits need each other to survive. I'm convinced of that.
I also know Cuban officials who want U.S. sanctions to end. They have told me things like, "Lift the embargo for six months. See what happens."
Now that could be a bluff, sure. But I don't think everyone in Cuba wants to live under economic sanctions forever.

SleightGirl said...

I think it's a wonderful idea...These two countries have been at odds for way too long.

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