Earlier this week, just ahead of making the first visit by a sitting American president to Cuba in 88 years, Barack Obama cultivated a very special pen pal. Sitting at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, he wrote a note to Ileana Yarza, a 76-year-old retired economist in Cuba who had sent him several letters over the years, often arguing for the lifting the U.S. embargo against her country, a blockade that has been in place most of her adult life. In her latest message, Yarza described the embargo as a “black page on American history and geopolitics,” invited the president and the first lady for Cuban coffee at her home in Havana during their visit next week, and expressed her eagerness to meet a “charming president whose open smile wins hearts.”
Obama responded, in a letter that was then loaded onto the first flight transporting direct mail from the United States to Cuba since the 1960s—one consequence of the recent restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic and commercial relations. (Like all things U.S.-Cuban, this subject is contentious: There’s debate over when precisely postal service was suspended. Some claim the suspension resulted from a raft of U.S. measures to isolate Cuba in the early 1960s, while others say it stemmed from a letter bomb sent from New York to Cuba in 1968. Before this week, mail was typically routed through third-party countries like Canada and Mexico.)
Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your support over the years, and I hope this note—which will reach you by way of the first direct mail flight between the United States and Cuba in over 50 years—serves as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between our two nations.
I am looking forward to visiting Havana to foster this relationship and highlight our shared values—and, hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee.
For a letter 50 years in the making, Obama’s is rather underwhelming and formulaic (and sooo noncommittal—“hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee” should give Ileana no assurance that he’ll be enjoying that cafecito with her). But it’s historic nonetheless.