Dissidents' Delight? New York Times Heaps Praise on Obama, Its Man in Havana

March 23rd, 2016 3:09 PM

As President Obama’s three-day Cuba excursion wraps up, the New York Times coverage from Havana took a few shots at the Communist nation’s persecution of dissidents, and the overall authoritarian nature of the regime. But the fawning over Obama’s “remarkable” visit went way over the top, including self-fawning: "Mr. Obama himself marveled aloud at the significance of his trip."

Damien Cave and Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Havana as Obama and his entourage arrived: “As Obama Arrives, Cuba Tightens Grip on Dissent.” But the paper had changed its tone by the last day of Obama’s visit. In the March 23 edition, Frances Robles reported that “Dissidents Praise ‘Closeness and Trust’ After Frank Meeting on Human Rights.”

Leading Cuban dissidents, including some who have been critical of President Obama’s policy of engaging with the Cuban government, spent nearly two hours on Tuesday discussing human rights with the president.

The frank meeting ended only when Mr. Obama’s aides ushered him out to reach the Estadio Latinoamericano in time for the first pitch of the Cuban national baseball team’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“We thought it would be a half-hour meeting, and it was an hour and 45 minutes,” said Elizardo Sánchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. He said Mr. Obama had listened to criticism from some of the 13 dissidents in attendance. “It was an atmosphere of closeness and trust,” he said.

Other activists who participated in the meeting at the United States Embassy praised Mr. Obama for taking time during his visit to Cuba to hear them out.

Cave and Davis piled on the adulatory adjectives in another March 23 dispatch, “President Tells Cubans They Have Nothing to Fear From U.S.

President Obama on Tuesday made a full-throated plea for Cuba’s autocratic government to change, calling on President Raúl Castro to loosen his grip on the economy and political expression or risk squandering the fruits of a historic thaw.


The speech was a striking element on the final day of a three-day presidential visit packed with extraordinary firsts: an American president speaking directly to Cuba’s people, in remarks that were broadcast live, as Cuba’s own president looked on.

It came a day after the two leaders had another remarkable encounter, holding frank talks at the Palace of the Revolution and then spending 55 minutes answering questions from the news media. Mr. Obama prodded Mr. Castro, clearly uncomfortable being placed on the spot by journalists, to engage in a give-and-take that is a hallmark of American democracy.

They even compared Obama’s jaunt to Reagan at the Berlin Wall:

Mr. Obama hopes to make the opening with Cuba a part of his legacy, akin to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Tuesday’s speech drew comparisons to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, where he famously challenged the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.”

Jim Dwyer’s March 23 “About New York” column from Union City, N.J. reminisced about “fanatical” anti-Castro folks in the town where Fidel Castro was arrested in the mid-1950s during a United States visit: “In a Cuban Enclave, Feelings Are Mixed on Reconciliation.”

In the Cold War era, the most fanatical of the anti-Castro exiles were enlisted as proxies by the Central Intelligence Agency and other anti-Communist forces.

Evidently there were no Communist thugs or "fanatics" around.

A March 22 front-page story by Davis and Cave kept the criticism muted while turning up the pro-Obama praise: “A ‘New Day’ of Openness, Taxed by Old Grievances.” Is a petty word like “grievances” really the right word to use when discussing Cuba's 50 years of human rights violations?

President Obama stood beside President Raúl Castro on Monday and declared a “new day” of openness between the United States and Cuba, but old grievances and disputes over human rights marred a groundbreaking meeting and underscored lingering impediments to a historic thaw.

The two presidents, meeting at the Revolutionary Palace for the first such official contact between their two governments in more than a half-century, engaged in a frank and at times awkward exchange with each other and reporters. Mr. Obama at turns prodded Mr. Castro to submit to questions during an extraordinary 55-minute news conference.


Mr. Castro sought to turn the human rights criticism on the United States, arguing that countries that do not provide universal health care, education and equal pay are in no position to lecture Cuba. He also said the United States military base at Guantánamo Bay should be returned to Cuba.

“It’s not correct to ask me about political prisoners,” Mr. Castro said.

Mr. Obama said he had pressed the Cuban president in their meeting over Cuba’s treatment of dissidents and reaffirmed that he would meet with some dissidents privately on Tuesday. But he also assured Mr. Castro that the United States had no intention of dictating his country’s future.


The president went a step further, in comments likely to be seized upon by critics of his push to pursue an opening with Cuba, conceding that the United States must face up to the criticisms Mr. Castro unleashed.

“I actually welcome President Castro commenting on some of the areas where he feels that we’re falling short, because I think we should not be immune or afraid of criticism or discussion as well,” Mr. Obama said.

The apparent rapport between the two presidents at the news conference was a striking display of warmth on a day that was dominated by the symbolism of the first tentative openings between Cuba and the United States since the Cold War.

A liberal reporter for NBC got the president’s seal of approval:

There were awkward moments as well, with both presidents pushing each other outside their comfort zones. Mr. Obama, who was determined to mark the occasion with a news conference -- something Mr. Castro seldom if ever does -- prodded the Cuban leader to submit to journalists’ questions.

After Mr. Obama finished answering a question from Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, he urged Mr. Castro to do so as well.

“It’s up to you,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Castro. “She’s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief answer.”


In a nation that stifles dissent, the men in the square were quick to shout out the kinds of things they hope Mr. Obama will bring to Cuba. “Freedom of speech!” one man shouted. “Freedom of expression!” another echoed.

Davis and Cave were most adulatory in a March 21 report showing the president rather impressed with himself, “Basking in Cuban Welcome, Obama Marvels at His Visit’s Significance.”

Shouts of “U.S.A.!” and “Obama!” echoed over the stone plazas as President Obama and his family made their way around rain-slicked courtyards in Old Havana on Sunday evening, savoring the adulation of Cubans welcoming him warmly despite a driving rain as he began a history-making visit.

“Welcome to Cuba! We like you!” a man shouted as Mr. Obama’s entourage passed. Above, a woman applauded and hooted from her wrought-iron balcony.

Later, a motorcade including the presidential limousine, adorned for the first time with Cuban and American flags, snaked through narrow streets where elated residents, their clothing soaked from waiting in the rain, hoisted cellphones and cheered the first sitting American leader to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years.

Mr. Obama himself marveled aloud at the significance of his trip.


All around the city on Sunday, Mr. Obama’s name could be heard -- before he arrived, when bartenders on a hotel rooftop thought they saw his entourage; when he landed, as groups of Cubans stood under verandas by the sea; and in homes across the city, where families watched him wave and smile on Cuban television.


Mr. Obama has long been admired by Cubans, first as a candidate, then as a president. When he announced restored relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, he came to embody a Cuban moment that symbolizes opportunity. That date is now recited often as a new national starting point, joining other historic dates, like July 26, 1953, when President Castro’s brother Fidel mounted an attack on the Moncada barracks, initiating the revolution.