Air Force One descends like a chariot of hope over a decaying and deprived street in this powerful image of President Obama’s arrival in Cuba, hoping to end one of the cold war’s strangest stories. A chubby man in a white T-shirt looks up at the vast yet elegant craft, easily identified as the world’s most famous personal plane. The cars beside him are ancient and decrepit emblems of a society frozen in time, one of the last communist societies on earth. It is like the classic American tale of Rip Van Winkle, as Obama’s customised Boeing 747, a symbol of the wealth and power that the United States has continued to accumulate since the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959, roars above this sleepy corner of Cuba that seems not to have changed in decades. Or is that a ridiculously pro-American reading of this picture? Does it in fact show a benign socialist society about to be swallowed up by the capitalist Leviathan that this plane represents?
Let’s look at the picture carefully and see exactly what worlds appear to be colliding here. Cuba certainly has electricity and telecommunications: wires criss-cross the street just as they might an American suburb. People have cars too, even if they are a bit timeworn. Are Americans happier because they have bigger, newer cars with guns on the back seat right next to the baby’s car seat? Yet what prevails on the ground in this photograph is above all a sense of neglect and decay. In a poor country with a tropical climate, things rot fast. Everything, from a ramshackle tin shed to whitewashed facades that ain’t so white to the people themselves, has an uncared-for quality. The chaos of low-level dwellings, unkempt grass and unweeded sidewalks speaks of an island of stasis and sluggishness.
This very timelessness is found attractive by some. You can holiday in Cuba in a magic realist fantasia of tropical weather, communist nostalgia and pre-revolutionary architecture that can apparently beguile. I haven’t been there myself, but holidaying in the pleasingly unmodernised seaside socialist state seems a bit self-indulgent in the face of disabused radicals such as Christopher Hitchens who visited Cuba in Fidel Castro’s heyday and learned to see through its propaganda, and today’s Cuban protesters such as the Ladies in White, who persist in pointing out the existence of political prisoners in this mouldering paradise.
“Government critics continue to be imprisoned,” says Amnesty International of Cuba. “Many report that they were beaten during arrest. Restrictions on freedom of expression are widespread.”
Obamas tour Old Havana as Cubans catch a glimpse of city’s future.
The heavens opened as the US president and his family toured Old Havana and hard on their heels will come a flood of tourism, development and political risk.
The Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz has said there will be no cocktails for political prisoners during Obama’s visit. But this picture shows why Obama is so right to visit Cuba, and to try to end one of modern history’s most insane standoffs. For the might and wealth embodied by that plane in the sky is as out of scale to the scene below as the guns of the conquistadors were to the stone-age weapons of the 16th century Aztec empire. This may be a tasteless analogy but it is a revealing one. The history of the Americas has repeatedly demonstrated, ever since Columbus reached the Bahamas – and sighted Cuba – in 1492, that modernity always defeats tradition. Old Cuba stands no chance against the slick powerful modernity that Air Force One represents. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Apple? They’ll be on the next plane.
It is incredible that the mighty United States managed to make itself so afraid of this small neighbour for so long. Obama seems to be one of the last Americans who really believes in his country. Anger at inequality in the US, frustration with economic stagnation, and a million other sources of rage seem to dominate the primaries this year. Yet in reality the US remains a startling society at the cutting edge of modernity – the place that Air Force One embodies.
Obama started his presidency in the name of “hope”. He is still spreading it in this photograph. Here is a double hope: a new engagement with the modern world for Cuba and the end of an unnecessary fear for the US. Sure – let’s have those cocktails, and pass the cigars.