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The character of leadership matters: the enduring legacy of the Obama presidency

Some people may not have appreciated the Barack Obama presidency during his rulership of the United States until President Donald Trump came along that made these people realise that the character of a leader does make a difference to a country and to the world.

To some people, Obama became less of a character compared to the overbearing persona of Trump who claimed that “America First” and “Make America Great Again”, without them realising that what Trump meant by these terms related to returning America to its former White supremacist self. Even the Americans realised that Trump was leading them towards the cul de sac and they ditched him in the recent elections, though he is still fighting with all his mighty to overturn the people’s verdict.

Today’s article is aimed at a selective analysis of the enduring Obama legacy that will live on in the light of the defeat of the Trump presidency whose raison d’être was to obliterate the Obama legacy. Obama contributed significantly to the defeat of Trump by campaigning heavily against him in battle ground states.

Obama did this partly as a normal tradition of former presidents helping out their party but this one was different: Obama had to be totally engaged in the defeat of Trump in order for him to preserve his legacy by ensuring that his former vice-president Joe Biden won power to continue the Obama legacy.

The most enduring legacy that Obama may leave will only be more visible in the future if Kamala Harris ever ascends to the presidency after the Biden presidency. Obama was key in the selection of Kamala Harris to be Biden’s running mate and by extension may have contributed to making Harris the first female and African American Vice-President in American history, and consequently the first female and African American president, should this happen in the future. Obama has also contributed in the selection of the most diverse initial Biden Cabinet than was the case under Trump where almost all White America was the order of the day in the Cabinet and everywhere.

Obama has just released a presidential memoir called “The Promised Land” which puts in context the near impossible obstacles that he faced as president, which for the doubters may now elevate his legacy to the stratosphere in the recognition that he accomplished anything at all, given the opposition that faced him. Mitch McConnell, the eventual Republican majority leader in Congress, had declared that his mission was to make the Obama presidency an impossible experience and to make him a one- term president. Obama recounts all the battles and set-backs and enduring achievements. His legacy is writ large in this book. It is a worthy-while purchase and read.

My article today will concentrate on only one legacy achievement in foreign policy that was impossible to fathom happening before Obama came to power. That achievement was temporarily halted by the Trump presidency, but may be reasserted by the Biden presidency, and that is the wider legacy of the US and Cuban relationship and the global impact of this particular relationship.

On the other side of that legacy was the indomitable Fidel Castro. It is to Obama’s credit that Castro lived to see the rapprochement between these two countries before Castro left the shores of earth. It was indeed befitting that Castro left the world’s political stage in the same year that one of the world’s most vexing questions was answered in Cuba’s favour by Obama. That is that the United States policy on Cuba had been wrong and unjustified since its inception more than 50 years ago.

President Obama’s visit to Cuba in early 2016 to normalise relations with Cuba was a testament to this realisation and acknowledgment. Thus, Castro went to eternal rest knowing that his eternal enemy, the USA had finally realised the futility and imbecility of its policy towards Cuba. And that despite all attempts to bring Cuba to its knees based on this wrong aggressive foreign policy of an invasion at Bay of Pigs, assassination attempts and a life-long embargo, came to naught and Cuba survived.

Obama was brave enough to end that intrepid policy. He opened the door for Biden to reopen that relationship and other foreign policy initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal and perhaps a closer relationship with Africa. Trump has never visited Africa. He cannot bother with shithole countries.

When David Remnick, editor of the prestigious Newyorker Magazine wrote his book on Obama entitled, ‘The Bridge’ depicting Obama as the bridge president between old and new USA, he could hardly have known that the book also applied to the world at large.

Obama was the world’s bridge president from old White US supremacist presidents who refused to give an inch to the dignity of other countries’ sovereign economic stirrings to the new world where the first non-White president in Obama recognised that this world is and should not be prioritised by White Anglo-Saxon protestant economic, political, moral, religious and cultural values and ethoes.

Obama became the first post war US president to visit most American hot spots where White US presidents feared to tread: Nagasaki, Vietnam, and Cuba. He also signed a much feared but necessary nuclear non-proliferation pact with Iran. Listen to Obama’s speech in Cairo extolling the virtues of how to reconcile Islam and western values, you will realise you lived in an era of a great president. No American President has ever made those speeches on race and cultural relations in America. They may not have amounted to much in visibly moving A to B but words mean a whole lot in history. They are a force unto themselves.

The true impact may be down the road or may even be now in unforeseen and hidden crevices.

When the record is finally tallied, history will record that Obama was truly the greatest American president in history up to 2016 in terms of both domestic and foreign policy reform successes despite unrelenting Republican roadblocks at home. With the Biden presidency, the Obama legacy will endure. Trump will not be able to reverse all of Obama’s successes. The Trump duplicity will in fact enhance the shining light and impact of the Obama legacy.

Obama, of course, made great mistakes like every president does. I have already written over 150 pages of published articles on the Obama presidency and his successes and failures. His greatness will be showcased when these articles are put as one piece. And others have written and will write about these and other issues.

Obama concluded his presidency after attempting to normalise relations with Cuba, and now the most vexing American foreign policy as already stated has been given an opening that America was wrong on Cuba. Obama ended up fulfilling Castro’s prescient tongue-in-cheek observation of 1974 when Castro reportedly jokingly said that US-Cuba relations will normalise when there will be a Black president in the US and a Pope in Rome from Latin America. Both happened in our life-time.

Trump will never be able to reverse historical trajectories, try as he may. He scored some successes here and there as history is won’t, but the future relations between Cuba and the US that Obama mended, will endure.

Cuba was a superpower to developing nations, thanks to Fidel Castro’s selfless justice-oriented foreign policy, just as America pretended to be the world’s superpower based solely on America’s selfish foreign policy interests. Cuba’s successful foreign policy has already been written a lot about. Cuba helped defeat Apartheid South Africa. Cuba helped defeat aggression in Angola. Cuban doctors are everywhere fighting COVID-19 for free.

As I am writing now, there are thousands of Zambian and other students, including Americans, training in Cuban medical schools for free at Cuban expense, while there are no equivalent assistance programmes by western governments. The only historically existing western systems are training of military and intelligence personnel to safeguard western interests and promote dictatorship in developing countries, including siphoning off of land, mineral and oil resources. Cuba is truly a positive partner of and model for developing countries.

And I am not writing in the abstract. I have visited Cuba many times and have been to almost all provinces of Cuba. I studied their economics. I studied their tourism, health and agricultural policies. There was no hunger in Cuba during the numerous times I visited. There were no street kids or street beggars. There was no homelessness. I saw organised sugar-cane, mango, orange, banana, rice, maize, etc plantations from which most developing countries can learn.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the embargo was unrelenting, tourism and agriculture saved Cuba. Tourism and agriculture can save Zambia and every developing country. The Cuban model is based on international law notion of national sovereignty and UN- sanctioned recognition of self-determination. Every country aspires to national sovereignty and self-determination but Cuba was not allowed this right by America. Obama tried to jettison this American policy.

Despite the stifling negative western propaganda about Cuba, there was no rebellion, partly because Cubans are well fed and governed in comparison. Secondly, they knew that there were restrictions on their freedoms in order to prevent American re-penetration of Cuba and bringing back Fulgencio Batista-type class divisions repression and false capitalist freedoms like those in favelas of Brazil, Mexico City and elsewhere.

The critics never ask or answer the question: what should Castro have done in Cuba given that free elections would have led Americans sponsoring a reactionary party and stooges of American imperialism? It was the order of the day in Africa and Latin America and elsewhere; it wasn’t hidden. Where the Americans and Europeans failed to influence the elections, they overthrew the freely elected regimes. It is all written.

But Americans cry openly at the whiff of Russian interreference in their elections. But Americans crushed militarily other countries to overturn elections, like in Chile and elsewhere. This is written. I summarise most of that history in my book “Thoughts Are Free”, Chapter 9. I also have a poem in that Chapter on Castro which I wrote on the occasion of his 58th birthday. That poem was published in the Monthly Review Magazine (New York, November issue, 1984).

Castro had a tough choice; it was a forced choice. He chose not to be an American puppet. He chose to serve the interests of the Cuban people, warts and all. Why should he have chosen to serve the interests of the Americans when the Americans chose not to serve the interests of the Cubans when they had a chance and choice? What is good for the goose is good for the gander. It is embodied in Trump’s “America First” mantra. For Castro it was “Cuba Frist”. What is wrong with that? Obama recognised this in reference to Cuba. Every nation is entitled to sovereignty and self-determination.

Castro is perhaps the last of the greatest revolutionary guerrilla leaders whose unselfish commitment to his country and people was unsurpassed. He died four years ago this November. Obama helped to send that soldier to his eternal resting place, a happy man, knowing that America had recognised that it had a misguided policy on Cuba. This is one of Obama’s greatest foreign policy legacies. The character of leadership matters everywhere including in Zambia.

The author teaches law in Zambia.

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