For the people of Cuba, this is going to be quite the freeing and liberating experience. But for Americans, a lot of people are wondering why in the world are we doing business with communists.
Eyeing a new future with the U.S., Cubans are preparing their famed capital for a long-awaited visit by President Barack Obama, who will make history when Air Force One touches down in Havana on Sunday.
Obama’s visit to the island nation will serve as a powerful symbol of the relationship that the U.S. and Cuba are now forging. For Obama, the 2 1/2-day trip offers one of the last, best chances to advance the diplomatic opening with President Raul Castro before Obama leaves office early next year.
Ahead of Obama’s arrival, American flags were raised in parts of Havana alongside Cuban flags, an improbable image for those who lived through more than a half-century in which the U.S. and Cuba were bitter foes. Cubans have been hard at work cleaning up Old Havana in recent days and giving buildings a fresh coat of paint, as the city buzzed in anticipation of Obama’s visit.
Yet while Obama remains a popular figure in Cuba, the jubilation that surged here in the early days of detente has been tempered by the absence of tangible improvement in most people’s lives.
“I haven’t seen anything” change since Washington and Havana renewed ties, said Roberto Albar, a 68-year-old retiree. Pointing to his decaying house near the sea, he added, “That’s falling down, and the poor are still poor.”
Nonetheless, he sees the thaw as a sign that both countries can benefit from the relationship: “We are practically neighbors,” Albar said, and Cuba’s political system “doesn’t mean we have to be enemies.”
In a reminder of how tightly Cuban society is still controlled, the Castro government announced a virtual shutdown of Havana during Obama’s stay, and few Cubans expected to see him in person. Extensive closures of main boulevards were planned during the day, and the city’s seaside Malecon was largely deserted in the morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.
Still, the historic significance of Obama’s visit was impossible to overlook. Not in nearly 90 years has a sitting American president visited Cuba.
Joined by his wife and daughters, Obama will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Castro in his presidential offices. He’ll join baseball-crazed Cubans for a historic game between their beloved national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.