In his historic speech this morning in Cuba, President Obama praised Miami several times. The most interesting mention was this:
In the United States, we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: It’s called Miami. Here in Havana, we see that same talent in cuentapropistas, cooperatives, and old cars that still run. El Cubano inventa del aire. [Applause.]
That statement can be taken several ways — among them ways that have pissed off black Miamians and others for years. As New Times columnist Luther Campbell recently wrote in his autobiography, The Book of Luke:
A couple of years ago, Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto made the ill-informed remark that Cubans built Miami. The truth is Bahamians built the city. My book discusses blacks who were among the first true pioneers.
"Inventing from the air" — as Obama implied — is a great talent, but certainly not something that was done in Miami. The city existed and thrived for decades before the Cuban arrival. Cubans have contributed mightily, but c'mon, Mr. President.
Obama met with Miami Cuban leaders for two hours before leaving for Havana. Among them was Jorge Mas, son of perhaps the most important Fidel hater of all time and leader of one of the area's largest companies, MasTec. Also, there was Emilio Estefan, who said after that meeting: "Of course, everybody has a different opinion. I like that even though we don’t agree on a lot of things about his trip to Cuba, at least you know we share the same hope about making a better future for Cuba."
The president gave an inspiring speech, talking about the need for internet and entrepreneurship in Cuba. He said the American embargo of the island should end. And he wasn't arrogant, insisting it was probably difficult for the audience to listen to an American president — who had been blamed for so many bad things on the island — talk about how Cuba should develop.
He also threw the Magic City a bone, mentioning it and the Cuban capital in a single breath. I wonder how Pitbull feels about his one:
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In Miami or Havana, you can find places to dance the cha-cha-cha or the salsa and eat ropa vieja. People in both of our countries have sung along with Celia Cruz or Gloria Estefan and now listen to reggaeton or Pitbull. [Laughter.] Millions of our people share a common religion — a faith that I paid tribute to at the Shrine of our Lady of Charity in Miami, a peace that Cubans find in La Cachita.
So what is to come of the speech and Obama's visit to the island? Is it, as he said, the end of the Cold War? That ended a long time ago. An end to Cuba's economic isolation? That is inevitable but probably won't happen until Congress becomes less polarized.
No, what is to come of this visit is Obama taking among his final steps in what presidents do: make statements in foreign policy at the end of their terms. History books will write that he was the first American president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge.
And they will write that his timing was pretty good — despite the arrests of dozens of (unacknowledged) dissidents during his visit. It's harder to say about his handling of the prison in Guantánamo Bay or pulling troops out of Iraq.