One picture, nearly a thousand words: Air Force One lands in Cuba

One picture, nearly a thousand words: Air Force One lands in Cuba

The iconic photo might have more to say about the United States than it does about Cuba

Air Force One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama and his family flies over a neighborhood of Havana as it approaches the runway to land at Havana's international airport, March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Alberto Reyes - RTSBHYK

Air Force One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama and his family flies over a neighbourhood of Havana as it approaches the runway to land at Havana’s international airport, March 20, 2016. (REUTERS/Alberto Reyes)

No doubt at some point during Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba this week, there was going to be a juxtaposition of this kind—where the realities of life in Cuba today would be set against how things have gone in the nation just to its north, the one under whose embargo Cuba has lived for over 50 years. Maybe, though, we did not expect such a contrast so soon, even before Obama touched down.

The details of the photo taken by a Reuters stringer on the island are striking: residents of Havana look skyward as a symbolic stand-in for the massive weight and might of the United States of America bears down on them. It is fitting too, perhaps, that a few of them stand next to their almendrones, the Frankenstein-like, aging American-made cars that have been constantly retrofitted and rebuilt since the trade embargo dropped down in 1957, denying Cubans access to new vehicles outside of a few Ladas and other odd imports.

If they didn’t serve as such before, the cars in this picture, idle below the incoming jumbo jet, are a helpful reminder now of what, exactly, happened during those embargoed decades—technological progress, yes, as well as progress of other kinds. But they are a reminder also of something else: the creation of want. Want on the side of the Cubans for what much of the rest of the hemisphere (and world) was getting, but also the want created on our side of things—want of resources, consumer products, and status.

Related: Maclean’s goes to Cuba to find out what Cubans want from Obama’s trip

Most would agree that the want created in North American society in the last 50 years is a more positive one than that imposed on Cubans in the same timeframe. It is better to want for a new iPhone than to want for food, obviously. And yet, as Cuba and the U.S. normalize relations, people are travelling to the island before Americans “ruin it,” as the Associated Press put it recently—as if there is an inherent acceptance that what we agree is better might not actually be so.

“Cuba has a very authentic atmosphere, which you see nowhere else in the world,” one man from Israel told the AP. It is an interesting way to categorize a society that has lived under the thumb of a communist dictator for more than half a century. This is not to deny Cuba a distinct culture, but merely to highlight the word “authentic.” What makes it authentic? “I wanted to see it before the American world… but also the modern Western world comes here,” the man told the AP. Beyond the false assumptions this makes of Cuba and Cubans (that they aren’t capable of shaping their own future), there is in this projection a yearning, a wanting.

This is the weirdness of the modern Western world: We are the best and also the worst. That incoming plane is equally the harbinger of promise and of doom, an invitation to look ahead but also to look out. For our culture is great but also terrible. Our Internet access is amazing but we are terrified. Our shopping malls are full but our hearts are empty. Our democracies are excellent but, well…

It is on this last point we might pause the longest these days. As President Barack Obama touched down in Cuba, back in the United States, presidential hopefuls, most notably Donald Trump, continued to push Americans to consider the same word uttered by that tourist: authenticity. In the U.S. these days, the word seems to mean simplicity in the form of a no-nonsense, unfiltered mouth. It means also nostalgic simplicity, particularly in the form of a slogan demanding that America must be made “great again”—that it return to a place in time before it ruined itself. A time when the U.S.A. was No. 1. A time when they told the world what was what. A time when they might embargo an island nation for half a century. A time before all the doubt.

So, that photo. Air Force One, not merely flying in, but asking its origin as much as its destination the same question: How does a nation become great again?


One picture, nearly a thousand words: Air Force One lands in Cuba

  1. I consider myself fortunate to have seen Cuba a couple of times before the oncoming American insurgency. I recall doing a jeep tour of the area surrounding Varadero and, being Varadero, it would be one of the wealthier regions of the island nation. It did look fairly third world, cinder block apartments, no air conditioning, everything pretty much in some state of disrepair. However, the children running out to meet us, to receive candy, shoes, hats from the tourists, which is the custom there, looked very healthy and happy, smiling with perfect teeth and all slim and fit, not one suffering from childhood obesity which seems to be rife here. You didn’t see much for homes there but you didn’t see homeless people either. Will America bring Cuba to the promised land? Highly doubtful. I think the Cuban people would like some new cars and decent television but if they had any idea what the debt cycle is and what we do to ‘enjoy’ our ‘affluence’ they probably would tell Barack to take his dog and pony show back to Washington.

    It is interesting that the President jets around the world in a tricked out 747, it speaks volumes as to what America really stands for. An oversized, outdated jumbo jet carrying a superfluous spokesman carrying the same message, do as I say, not as I do, you play by our rules and we will be your friend. Antiquated transportation carrying the antiquated notion of American ‘superiority’ and worldwide dominance.

  2. The intellectual shallowness of the liberal left exemplified in the comment of one John K C. Sure, the Cubans have no economic, religious, or political freedom, but hey they’re not fat and have nice teeth. Ain’t communism great? What the Cuban people really want is justice. They want justice for the thousands that have been murdered by their own government, or imprisoned for the crime of not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the Castro reign of fear, and the unknown hundreds of thousands who died trying to make the treacherous passage across the Florida Strait on homemade boats.
    Cuba is a prison, plain and simple. The Americans didn’t deny the Cubans anything they couldn’t get elsewhere. They could have bought cars from Sweden, and consumer goods from any number of nations. Those goods were unavailable because the Communists made sure they were unavailable. To think and declare otherwise is just plain stupid.

  3. Beautiful article. Does nothing but tell it as it is, from multiple vantage points, and ask questions that are only too obvious. All of what has happened over the last 50 years could have been predicted; the only unknown was the time frame. Our present crystal ball is equally unhelpful; all we can do is cross our fingers.

  4. …what would happen if the word MODERN and its derivatives were deleted?… What words would be used instead?…
    As Marshall McLuhan shows us in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) the word MODERNI was created in the XI century at the University of Paris as an insult from one group of theologians, the traditionalists, to another group of theologians, the “moderns”…
    The british historian John Roberts has a… “good” definition of… “modernization” in his book The Triumph of The West: The Origin, Rise, and Legacy of Western Civilization (1985)…
    I would substitute MODERNIZATION for COLONIZATION…