Miami leaders give us a peek inside Obama’s Cuba visit

We doubt you missed the headlines from President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba last week: Groundbreaking speeches. Business deals struck. Baseball. The Rolling Stones.

Miami was present in a big way, so we asked local leaders for a glimpse of what it felt like to be there to share their most memorable moments.

Editor’s note: These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Philip Levine, Miami Beach Mayor

We met one family and went to their apartment. The mother hadn’t seen her daughter in I don’t know how many years because she had moved to Miami. The mother literally had tears in her eyes of joy and excitement. I found that to be very telling about the relationship between both our countries. It’s a little like two long lost relatives that are connected by history and by blood. They may not agree on everything, but they’re still family. The historical connection between our countries must be rebuilt.

Seeing cruise ships in the harbor of Havana was much more exciting and reassuring than seeing Russian navy ships in the harbor in Havana. I think that said everything. And I believe that our countries made a very good choice in saying we’d rather see Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise ships than Russian naval ships in the harbor. I think seeing those cruise ships there shows that we’ve entered a different phase. American cruise lines aren’t there yet, but Carnival is coming in in May. I think the interaction you’re going to have with all those Americans coming ashore, it’s going to be tremendous, it’s going to build bridges.

Another big moment was when I met the president of the synagogue in Havana. The Jewish community has been there for over 100 years and this woman, her name is Adele, she’s been there her whole life, she never left even though the entire Jewish community basically left with the revolution. I asked her – she’s 83 or 84 years old – “Why didn’t you leave?” She said, “Somebody had to stay and carry on the traditions.” She is living history.

Raul Moas, Executive Director, Roots of Hope

The most memorable moment was in a car pulled over on the side of the street in the middle of Havana with a friend I had made just a few days before, listening to the speech on the radio in the car and him hearing for the first time in his life – he’s 33 years old – someone who is speaking with hope and optimism about the future. Someone who isn’t there to speak with antagonistic military cold war propaganda but instead extend the manos de la paz. That was kind of an earthquake for Cubans. No one has spoken to the Cuban people that way for 60 years.

Obama used his own example, the son of a biracial couple who grew up in a working family and through hard work, freedom, and perseverance was able to reach the office of the presidency… for my friend, who has been thinking about leaving Cuba because he might not see hope or a better life on the horizon, it really did feel like the president was speaking to him. That was really moving. And my friend recognized in me how moved I was when the president acknowledged the experience of my parents and grandparents, the trauma of exile, the love they still have for their homeland. In that moment we were both Cuban and 57 years of separation, 57 years of totalitarianism, was erased… We were able to take one step toward healing what 57 years of separation and dictatorship had done.

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola

My father was born in Cuba and is Cuban-American. He was there on a separate trip, with the Miami business delegation. The highlight of my trip was probably going to see the baseball game with him in a stadium where he used to go see baseball games with his father.

My father obviously hadn’t been back in that stadium in probably 60 years.  He and I have been working with President Obama on a change in US-Cuba relations for the past 13 years and to know we had a small part in helping the president in changing US-Cuba policy made it an even richer experience.

Ric Herrero, Executive Director, #CubaNow

The three more common remarks I heard from Cubans on the island, who were by and large elated, were one: “What a humble family.” By the entire family showing up, they struck a sharp contrast with the Castro family. For many years Fidel Castro wouldn’t bring out his family to the general public or present himself with them in public.

The other comment I often heard was that Obama’s speech was something they need to study for years.

It’s the first time that anybody has gone to Cuba and respectfully delivered a clear and concise argument for the democratic process directly to the Cuban people. Most of the people on the island today were born after the revolution. They don’t know what it was like before, nor do they know what democracy is like.

Another thing I  heard was, “Why can’t President Obama become president of Cuba after he is done being president of the United States?” They genuinely meant it – like, “Why can’t he?”

I think what it really speaks to is their yearning for a leader like Obama. Young, family-oriented, charismatic, who was willing to come to them, who did not see himself above them. That he cut two videos with Panfilo, the state TV comedy show, spoke volumes to them. Never has any member of the Cuban government appeared on that show or any comedy show. They’ve always seen themselves as above that. That Obama essentially said, “I’m willing to join in the fun” –  that’s very powerful. The videos were insanely popular.

And then there was the Rolling Stones concert. In Cuba it seemed like something from another planet. People were elated, they were having such a great time. It barely felt like you were in Havana. It felt like you were here in Miami.