Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shout slogans as they burn a U.S. national flag during a demonstration.
Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro burn a U.S. flag doutside the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires as both sides meet in Panama for the start of the Summit of the Americas, April 10, 2015.
Marcos Brindicci / Courtesy Reuters

In Havana, surrealism is not so much a school of art as a feature of daily life. Beyond the tourist bubble enclosing parts of the nominally socialist city, residents face daily contradictions that only seem to intensify. Average Cubans on depressed state salaries, for instance, are already hurrying to grab the last of this year’s delayed crop of potatoes. Across town, however, Sara’s Bar draws patrons from the island’s foreign-currency-holding elite with a conspicuous imitation of South Beach chic. Ten minutes away, the red flag of the Soviet Union proudly advertises a new private Russian restaurant, complete with Lenin-era propaganda posters to lend the décor the right amount of nostalgic kitsch.

But all that is nothing compared with the experience of watching Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro deliver dueling speeches in Panama at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, a gathering from which Cuba had previously been excluded. Broadcast live in Cuba on both state television and the Venezuelan 24-hour news network TeleSUR, the matchup represented both a head-to-head battle 50 years in the making and a potential turning point for a bilateral rapprochement still getting off the ground.  At the same time, in the densely populated, working-class heart of Cuba’s capital, life seemed to go on as most folks attended to more mundane concerns. “Things will probably remain the same,” one neighbor said, shrugging, as kids around him played stickball with bottle caps.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa listens to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa listens to remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, April 11, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The skepticism seemed warranted. Theatrics began before Obama and Raúl even arrived. Outside a widely anticipated civil society forum held in advance of the summit itself, a ruckus broke out as Cuba’s official delegation—claiming, pedantically, to represent Cuba’s “real” civil society and chaired, questionably, by Abel Prieto, former minister of culture and current adviser to Raúl Castro—vociferously protested the presence of Miami- and island-based anti-Castro dissenters who were already in the conference hall. However one feels about the Cubans’ manipulation of the concept of “civil society”—let alone Miami’s penchant to associate the term only with hard-line opposition—protests should not have been unexpected. The presence in Panama of Félix Rodríguez, an aging Cuban exile and former CIA agent who helped the Bolivian army track down and execute Che Guevara in 1967, could only have ended in disaster. In subsequent days, the shouting match devolved into a brawl between pro-Castro Cubans, reinforced by Panamanian allies, and anti-Castro foes, all at a park in front of Cuba’s embassy in Panama City. Whoever threw the first punch, the scene risked reviving stereotypes of Cubans as hopelessly ideological, impossibly intransigent, and incapable of dialogue.

Cooler heads prevailed as heads of state gathered for a lengthy round of speeches once the summit formally kicked off. Indeed, a closed-door meeting between Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, and John Kerry seemed to have laid the groundwork for a possible breakthrough on formally reestablishing relations. All the same, as Presidents Obama and Castro both began to deliver their remarks, each leader seemed to speak past as much as to the other. The United States, Obama affirmed, had little interest in talking about its admittedly troubling past in the region and preferred to focus on collaboration with an eye toward the future. More history, though, is exactly what he got, when Raúl Castro launched into a 50-minute inventory of Cuban grievances against U.S. interventionism, from its roots in the ideology of Manifest Destiny, to the Platt Amendment of 1901, all the way to the Bay of Pigs invasion. “I always enjoy the history lessons I get at these things,” Obama quipped.

A certain amount of invective was to be expected, especially in front of a regional audience with an extensive record of resistance to U.S. hegemonic presumptions. Call it a long-awaited, partially performative settling of accounts before Havana considers further opening the store.  Indeed, earlier in the session, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa even saw fit to remind the first sitting African American president that the United States was founded on racial hypocrisy. Commence the pile-on.

Still, as Castro alternated between calculated demands for redress and improvised passion, losing his place on the page at several points, another irony was palpable through Havana television sets. The revolution was founded, among other things, on a promise that Cuba would never again be an exotic playground for American fantasies. Yet at the moment of the revolutionary government’s crowning diplomatic achievement—a sitting U.S. president having to listen to a Cuban president read him the riot act—Cuba’s capital was simultaneously playing host to more American visitors than ever before, content to sip mojitos, photograph living ruins and their inhabitants, and parade through town in caravans of antique Chevys.

Cuba’s leaders and hotel chains (in which the Cuban military often has a stake), not to mention the burgeoning private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and other businesses eager to get in on the cash flow, seem prepared to live with the topsy-turvy symbolism of such encounters. Tourism on the island has long profited from peddling, in part, the image of a 1950s Cuba that the revolution was supposed to have left behind. Since December 17, that allure has only increased, with hotels filled to capacity and everyone from Conan O’Brien to Paris Hilton dropping in for a look.

Cuba's President Raul Castro pretends not to hear questions from journalists as he and U.S. President Barack Obama meet in Panam
Cuba's President Raul Castro pretends not to hear questions from journalists as he and U.S. President Barack Obama meet in Panama City, April 11, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

But besides the flood of interested U.S. travelers, advancements toward rapprochement in the long run are likely to be painstaking and accompanied by further dialogues of the deaf. Following the advice of the U.S. State Department, Obama has now officially recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This will take away a major impediment to formally converting standing “Interests Sections” into full-fledged embassies, and it will expand the Cuban government’s ability to conduct business around the globe. Still, beyond important work to be done on practical bilateral issues such as migration, drug trafficking, telecommunications, and limited exports to Cuba’s private sector, the embargo as a whole, Guantánamo Bay, and other big-ticket items on the Cubans’ wish list are likely to remain unresolved before Obama leaves office. With the Cuban government holding the keys to a reformed but still restrictive foreign investment landscape, most U.S. companies eager to enter a “virgin market” (as if European, Chinese, and Latin American capital had not been on the island for years) will have to bide their time, even when the embargo ceases to be a factor.

In the end, the historic tête-à-tête between Presidents Obama and Castro in Panama did end on a positive note. Obama, Raúl conceded toward the end of his speech, was an “honest man” of “humble origins,” not at fault for the legacies of gunpoint diplomacy, U.S.-backed military regimes, and hemispheric arm-twisting that date to before his birth. To his credit, the president listened to the historical litany patiently, treating the Cubans like adults—perhaps Havana’s primary desire in all these years of bilateral feuding. A chummy public sit-down between the two after the plenary session of heads of state reaffirmed both governments’ desire to keep up the momentum where possible.

Yet as Americans flock in, and Europeans and Canadians rush to experience Havana’s romanticized decay before more gringos arrive, many of the city’s residents are still looking for a way out. “Now with relations,” multiple friends have predicted, “the Cuban Adjustment Act”—allowing Cubans a guaranteed fast track to permanent residency in the United States as soon as they touch a U.S. border—“is bound to come to an end.” Take advantage while you can, seems to be the consensus, especially since Cuba’s reformed Migration Law of 2013 makes it possible for Cubans to attain a green card while maintaining residency rights, property, or even a small business on the island. A final incongruity, then, completes this surreal picture: among Cuba’s state television crew sent to report on their president’s historic face-off with a U.S. president, two technicians reportedly chose not to return home. 

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