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How will U.S. detente change Cuba?

What does President Obama’s historic visit mean for a new era of U.S.-Cuban relations? Gwen Ifill talks to Laura Trevelyan of BBC World News America for the view from the ground, and Judy Woodruff turns to María de los Angeles Torres of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute for more on the implications and impact of the president’s visit.

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    Now we turn to the view from the ground in Cuba during this historic visit.

    It comes from the BBC's Laura Trevelyan, who is reporting from Havana tonight.

    So, Laura, how has the U.S. president been received on the ground there?

  • LAURA TREVELYAN, BBC World News America:

    Well, Gwen, by the young 20-something Cubans who I have been talking to, with tremendous excitement.

    As one young Afro-Cuban said to me: "Obama is change. That's what he represents."

    And the young Cubans that I have been talking to have been very struck by the difference between what they see as the young American president and, of course, their own president, Raul Castro, who is in his 80s. So there is a sense that his visit represents a new era, that people feel that this is a new beginning that, after almost 60 years of a hostile relationship with a superpower just 90 miles away from here, that now this is exciting, that there are endless possibilities for young people to study.

    But there is a generational change there, too, Gwen. And I think, for parents of these 20-somethings, this is a difficult moment for them, because they have grown up with a one-party state, with the system as it is, and they wonder what the change will bring.


    But what is the practical effect of the hope and the change that you're talking about? When we saw two presidents side by side today, there was clearly — there are clearly wide areas of disagreement between them that are not just generational.



    But one of the practical effects of change is that, for example, there are cranes up all over Havana. Some of the hotels which were playgrounds for wealthy Americans in the 1950s are now being refurbished, because, of course, for so many Caribbean items, tourism is a lifeline, particularly American tourism.

    And it could be the same for Cuba, especially with 110 direct flights a day due to be coming here from later in the year. So, I have been talking to Cubans who, for example, for the last year have been able to rent out their homes through Airbnb, that American service on the Internet where you let out your homes to people.

    Now, Cubans for years have been letting out their rooms. They call it casas particulares, but now it's on the Web. Here in Havana, there 2,500 homes that are being rented out on Airbnb. And people are so pleased to have the extra money, because the average Cuban wage is about 25 U.S. dollars a month.

    Through Airbnb, the average amount you get from a stay is $250. So, there is a huge change for people who regularly complain that they just do not have enough money to live on.


    Yet, when the two presidents talk about — admit that they have — still have profound differences between the two nations, does that trickle down at all to ordinary Cubans?


    Well, most certainly.

    As someone who's lived in America 12 years, coming here to Havana, Cuba, what strikes you is that this is a one-party state, that broadcasting is state-controlled.

    So, for example, this morning, on morning television, there was respectful TV coverage of the Obama visit, pictures of the Obama girls under an umbrella, pictures of Michelle coming down from Air Force One.

    But the tone is state-controlled. And it was made clear in the coverage that Guantanamo Bay is something that will be raised. And then, of course, related to that is the fact that there isn't freedom of information here, because the Internet service is terrible.

    One of the changes that Raul Castro has introduced, is there is more public Wi-Fi in public parks, but Cubans have to pay for it. And the young Cubans that I have been speaking to, their biggest wish is that the Internet service could be better, so that they could be online, so they can use Facebook, they can use Twitter, they can use e-mail.

    They just feel that their lives are so restricted. As one young Cuban said to me, "Knowledge is power, and without the Internet, we can't have the information we need to make choices about our lives."


    It's something, watching change happen right before our eyes.

    Laura Trevelyan reporting for the BBC and for us from Havana tonight, thank you.


    And we turn to analysis of today's historic meeting in Havana and of the president's trip to Cuba.

    For that, I'm joined by Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research and a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute. He's a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

    And we welcome you both.

    Roger Noriega, to you first.

    What's your impression so far of how this trip is going?

  • ROGER NORIEGA, American Enterprise Institute:

    Well, it was a little clumsy today, I think, the very awkward press conference.

    But I can understand the excitement of the Cuban people that was described by your previous guest. You know, there is something sort of exotic about Cuba. People haven't been able to travel there in a long time. It's a tropical island. It has a shortages of fish and tropical fruit. Something clearly is wrong there.

    But, on the other hand, the people aren't that different than people anywhere. And they — you know, why would anybody choose to be in a dictatorship? Why wouldn't they choose democracy? Because the government has a totalitarian hold on every aspect of their lives.

    And that worries me, because the government, in the final analysis, will have the say of whether the economic opening achieves any sort of meaningful change or whether the people are going to be left disappointed.


    Maria Torres, what's your sense of the trip so far?

    MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES, University of Illinois at Chicago: Well, for not only for Cubans on the island, but I think for Cubans like myself that came to the United States as young children, this has been very moving.

    And it is historic, even though that is a very overused word when we speak about Cuba. I would like to just remind all of us that this is not the first time that we have had a rapprochement with Cuba. In 1978, Jimmy Carter also opened the door. In fact, there was another historic moment in which a Cuban airline landed in Atlanta and took over 100 Cuban Americans to dialogue with the Cuban government.

    Actually, that was my first trip back to Cuba. We were very excited at the time. We thought that there could be change. There was 3,600 political prisoners that were released, and, in fact, small businesses were opened up at the time.

    But what happened was that it got out of control and the Cuban government opened up the floodgates, and at the same time clamped down. And after that came Reagan. So, I am hopeful, to the extent that I think this is a little bit more, if you will, assertive rapprochement on the part of President Obama, but we still need to remember it is a military government.


    Roger Noriega, do you think this time will be different? Do you see something materially different this time? Obviously, the president's there, but what do you believe could come from this?


    Well, certainly, that's very dramatic. The president's made a big bet on this in terms of his legacy in history.

    Unfortunately, if he loses that bet, it's going to be 11 million Cubans that pay the price, because by licensing deals, as he has, tractor factory and…


    Business deals.


    …. hotels being — several hotels being managed, these are deals that he's licensed with entities that are owned and operated by the Cuban military.

    So, in a certain way, you know, we sort of counted on the actuarial table to deal with the Castro brothers, but by the president sort of not only giving the political normalization and legitimization, but also this economic engagement, it may actually create a certain momentum for transition in the post-Castro period to just more dictators.

    And I think that would be extraordinarily tragic if that were to happen.


    Maria Torres, could that be an outcome of this, that the communist regime is strengthened by this, rather than moving toward — in any way toward democracy?


    Well, I think there's always — that's a risk, but I also think that there's a couple of factors that are different this time around.

    And that is, one, I think there is support on this side of the Florida Strait. Many of the businesses today in Cuba are being fueled by family members who are in Miami. There is — that's a very porous border. I think that the Cuban government realizes they do not have Soviet Union or a Venezuela or Brazil or Chinese government that will bail them out this time around. And so, therefore, they are forced to make changes.

    I don't think these are changes that they want to make. And they are, in fact, very modest changes, given the depth of the crisis in Cuba. But, nonetheless, I think for those who would like to be part of whatever configuration of a government there is after the Castro brothers, there is a sense that they have got to make some changes.

    And one thing Cuba cannot do is open up the immigration floodgates, and so, therefore, it is internally that the changes have to be made.


    Well, let's pick up on that and pick up on the political prisoner exchange at today's news conference.

    Roger Noriega, we saw President Castro fire back. He said, what political prisoners? And he said, give me a list and we will release them tonight.

    What do you see going on there? Because now there are human rights organizations saying, we're going to put out the names.


    Well, quite frankly, I can see why he would lose track of the political prisoners, because they take them every day, and the arrests were very dramatic because they were on the eve of the president's visit, the arrests yesterday of ladies going to church, Santeria Parish, as they do every Sunday. They are beaten up and roughed up every Sunday as well, so…


    And this is just on the eve of President Obama arriving?


    Absolutely. And that just sort of affirms that the regime is not going to let up. And they have every intention of holding, you know, sort of restraining any kind of economical or political opening that would threaten its survival.


    Maria Torres, why isn't that a pretty discouraging development here, that there really is very little sign so far of their move toward democracy and certainly not toward doing anything about these prisoners, political prisoners?


    I absolutely agree.

    I think one thing we have to remember, change doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be positive. And I think, with the crumbling, if you will, of totalitarian regimes oftentimes comes a moment of extreme repression.

    And I think that is why the fact that Raul Castro was asked on his own turf about political prisoners and about human rights is something that we normally don't see. And I think that that, regardless of how little Internet there is in Cuba and how little press there is, people in Cuba will know this by tonight.

    And so I think that that is — in a sense, that is creating another sense of environment, and in fact, I would say a sense of empowerment. The repression — as one of the leaders of the human rights groups in Cuba said today, there is a lot of repression because there is a lot of democracy movement on the ground.


    Roger Noriega, so could there be empowerment just by the very fact that they had the president's visit and this news conference, that people will ask questions?


    I think this is a very tough totalitarian Stalinist regime, as it's been described to me by Eastern Europeans who've lived there, but it's also a brittle regime, in my way of thinking.

    And I think that this is one area. Can the regime control expectations? If that gets out of hand, it will be a serious problem. But my concern is that, did the president strengthen Castro's hand by accepting engagement with Cuba on his terms?

    The regime has made this a binary choice. You either engage the regime or you engage the people. And since Eisenhower, presidents have chosen not to engage the people. And I'm afraid that this sends the wrong message, and the president also making a commitment, a statement that he's not about changing the regime.

    Well, why wouldn't he be? This is a totalitarian regime. Why wouldn't anybody be for changing that regime?


    We're going to have to leave it there, but we thank you both very much, Roger Noriega, Maria de Los Angeles Torres. Thank you.


    Thank you.

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