At the first sight of President Obama's face, the small bar burst into cheers, tears and whistles. One man shouted, "Bienvenido a Cuba Señor Presidente, now will you see with your own eyes how beautiful Cuba and our people are." Others shook their heads as in disbelief, remaining speechless (something rare in Cuba, where everyone seems to have an opinion about pretty much anything under the sun) as they watched the gallantry of the first American president and his family setting foot in the communist nation in almost 90 years.
"I am so emotional," Yuli, a young woman and entrepreneur who makes ends meet by renting her and her husband's apartment via Airbnb kept repeating. "My goose bumps won't go down." Radiel, her husband, an independent cab driver, videotaped every moment, taking selfies with his smartphone (yes, many Cubans have smartphones.) He hopped around from person to person like a child in wonder, knowing that he was part of history and, in the process, making history. In this small corner of Havana, in this history-making moment between two nations that have remained stuck in a ludicrous stalemate that has resulted in immeasurable human suffering, I sensed unmitigated joy and hope for a new Cuba.
The U.S.-Cuba embargo is America's equivalent of the Berlin Wall, and on Sunday I happily witnessed bigger chunks of the wall coming down, helped along by a strong American President who has shown global leadership (read respect for the smaller nations of the region) like no other. Although Congress would need to end the embargo, Obama has moved thoughtfully, quietly, and has achieved something Congress has been incapable of exacting. Good for Obama. Good for Raul Castro.
This will cement not only Obama's legacy in the history books but also Fidel Castro's, who many still see as a powerhouse. In short, in a few short months, the 44th president has been able to do what most haven't: accept Cuba's sovereignty, and via extension, give respect to the Cuban people.
Good for you, Obama, it was about time.
The electricity in Havana has been palpable everywhere. The night before Obama's arrival I dined at El Cocinero, a rooftop restaurant next to Fabrical Del Arte, an artistic community housing all forms of Cuban art under one roof. El Cocinero is swanky and modern and rivals any modern spot I have seen in my travels from Los Angeles to Miami, New York, Paris or Mexico City.
I met Zoe, the mother of Yotuel, an actor and member of the famous Cuban rap group Los Orishas. When reflecting on the visit, she quoted a famous Cuban saying: Water that has passed by a watermill is not good any more. It is the Cuban equivalent of water under the bridge -- let it go.
"Too much suffering has happened on both sides of the Cuban nation It's time to be a family again," she said. Zoe, a self-professed proud communist, said she lives by her mother's philosophy: Your closest relative is your neighbor next door. America, she said, is a mere 90 miles from our shores.
To say that Cubans have been experiencing some difficult moments would be a large understatement. I've been covering the island and interested in the U.S. embargo since I began my journalism career more than two decades ago. I have profound respect for the people, culture and history of the island. In 1994, I produced a special on the Cuban embargo for Telemundo. When I proposed bringing the diverse voices of the exiled Cuban community to a dialogue in the studio on the embargo, I received a call from Miami from an executive at the local affiliate warning me that I should not bring any "communists" to the studio. (Basically I was being threatened with getting fired). Then, the divide between the hard-liners and anyone who wanted some sort of softening, even for humanitarian reasons, was seismic. I have witnessed the gulf narrow as new generations of Americans and Cubans come of age.
One young woman said she hates politics and this embargo "es por gusto." That is Cuban for a whim. And as an observer, I agree. And I also agree that it's been America's fault. Our leaders have been disrespectful of Cubans for too long, wanting to tell Cuba what to do and how to run their country.
What history has shown us with Cubans is that no one bosses them around. They will not be told what to do. They will resolver (figure it out) and laugh at their misfortune, keep loving their families, making great art, and loving their land. The ones who remained voluntarily and for involuntary reasons have suffered. But they won't bend. This reality has been a hard pill to swallow for our leaders. But the Cuban leaders and the majority here have been steadfast.
The rest of the world -- and particularly the Latin American region, including the Caribbean and Puerto Rico -- have supported Cuba's right to determine its own future. This weekend, I came to witness history with the Cuban people. And I am glad I did. There is no going back to whims, but only moving forward with 21st century leadership.