President Barack Obama began his historic visit to Cuba on Sunday, marking the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. president has visited the country. His 48-hour visit comes more than a year after the White House announced that the U.S. would move to normalize relations with Cuba, and since that time Obama has taken steps to ease U.S. restrictions on the country.
We asked José F. Buscaglia, professor and chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, has just returned from Havana as part of a Northeastern delegation that explored several potential academic and research partnerships in Cuba. Buscaglia has studied the Caribbean and Latin America extensively throughout his career and was a pioneer in study abroad programs by American institutions to Cuba, where he was the first professor from a U.S. university since the revolution of 1959 to teach a regularly scheduled yearly seminar at the University of Havana.
What is your reaction to President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, ease restrictions, and visit the country?
My impression right now is that this is certainly a historic opportunity, and I’m very happy to see President Obama is seizing the day and taking the high road. This is something that should’ve been done decades ago, and this will certainly be one of the major legacies of his presidency. He has the opportunity here to reset the relations between the United States and not only Cuba, but also more broadly to Latin America, going back to the U.S. war with Mexico in the mid 19th century and Spanish-American War in 1898. Having said that, seizing the moment so far has mostly been a maneuver of the U.S. The Obama administration has moved quite a bit and quite fast, but Cuba has yet to make any major concessions. So in terms of bringing both countries together and resetting the relationship, I think we’re still at the very initial stage of that.
What is the significance of normalizing relations, and what would it mean for both countries?
We’re talking about normalizing relations that have never been normal. The first thing that needs to be done is not just reengage, but basically wipe the record clean and start all over again. In many ways, Obama’s visit is potentially very symbolic, not just in the context of U.S.-Cuba relations but also in the context of trying to reset relations between the U.S and everyone south of the Rio Grande.
I think also President Obama cares deeply and has a vision of hemispheric integration, and understands clearly that isolating Cuba in the context of hemispheric politics only serves the purpose of isolating the United States. A destabilized Cuba is not good for anybody.
You’ve traveled to Cuba many times, the most recent being last March, prior to your visit last week. What are the biggest changes you noticed during this most recent visit compared to previous visits?
I was only in Havana [this time], which is much different than the rest of the country. But the most notable difference I’ve seen in the city is that Cubans are much better connected to rest of the world. There is much more access to WiFi, and that has to be credited to the reforms that Raul Castro has set in place. When we talk about the people of Cuba and of the U.S., what is clear to me is that the Americans are the ones who have the most misconstrued image of the people on the other side. They think that Cuba is a communist country that is suspended in the 1950s. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cuba has never stayed put. And the young Cuban people are linked up to what’s going on in the world like everyone else, and the Cuban people know the United States very well.
Havana is also getting a major facelift right now. Everyone has been mobilized for two months. For Cubans, the only way to make political commentaries is by making jokes, and one of the most relevant jokes these days—one that we heard several times—is that since President Obama will soon complete his term as president of the United States, they’d like him to consider being mayor of Havana, because he’s done more for the city of Havana in the past two months than anybody in the city’s history. They’ve been cleaning everything up, painting façades, and paving roads that have been full of craters for decades.