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What’s up, Cuba? Why Obama’s visit is a historic one

world Updated: Mar 21, 2016 10:46 IST
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US President Barack Obama tours Old Havana with his family at the start of a three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria(REUTERS)

Havana

Barack Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday for a historic visit to end a half-century-long Cold War standoff, although rain and a no less heavy police presence dampened the festive mood.

As Air Force One touched down in Havana, the US president cheerfully began the landmark trip by tweeting in local slang: “Que bola Cuba?” -- or “What’s up?”

Obama, his wife Michelle and their two daughters Sasha and Malia clutched umbrellas to shield themselves from drizzle as they descended the steps to the tarmac.

Obama was not only the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro’s guerrillas overthrew the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, but the first all the way back to Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Read more: US President Obama arrives in Cuba, calls it a ‘historic visit’

“President Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours,” Obama joked during a meeting with staff from the freshly reopened US embassy in Havana.

“This is a historic visit,” declared Obama, who was to meet Monday with Cuban President Raul Castro, the lesser known brother of Fidel, who handed over the leadership in 2008.

Why this trip is historic

Obama’s whirlwind trip is a crowning moment in his and Castro’s ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. While deep differences persist, the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since the leaders vowed a new beginning.

For more than 50 years, Cuba was an unimaginable destination for a US president, as well as most American citizens. The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution sparked fears of communism spreading to the Western Hemisphere. Domestic politics in both countries contributed to the continued estrangement well after the Cold War ended.

“He wanted to come to Cuba with all his heart,” 79-year-old Odilia Collazo said in Spanish as she watched Obama’s arrival live on state television. “Let God will that this is good for all Cubans. It seems to me that Obama wants to do something good before he leaves.”

Ahead of Obama’s arrival, counter-protesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, whose members were taken into custody by female police officers in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday. They’re typically detained briefly and then released.

Obama’s visit was highly anticipated in Cuba, where workers furiously cleaned up the streets in Old Havana and gave buildings a fresh coat of paint ahead of his arrival. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colors in parts of the capital, an improbable image for those who have lived through a half-century of bitterness between the two countries.

Many Cubans stayed home in order to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards. The city’s seaside Malecon promenade was largely deserted Sunday morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

The president’s schedule in Cuba is jam-packed, including an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Obama’s visit was about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island’s vibrant culture.

A highlight of Obama’s visit comes Tuesday when he joins Castro and a crowd of baseball-crazed Cubans for a game between the beloved national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. The president also planned a speech at the Grand Theater of Havana laying out his vision for greater freedoms and more economic opportunity in Cuba.

Two years after taking power in 2008, Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society. The changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to work in the private sector and have relaxed limits on cellphones, Internet and Cubans’ comfort with discussing their country’s problems in public, for example.

The Cuban government has been unyielding, however, on making changes to its single-party political system and to the strict limits on media, public speech, assembly and dissent.

Obama will spend some time talking with Cuban dissidents. The White House said such a meeting was a prerequisite for the visit. But there were no expectations that he would leave Cuba with significant pledges from the government to address Washington’s human rights concerns.

A major focus for Obama was pushing his Cuba policy to the point it will be all but impossible for the next president to reverse it. That includes highlighting new business deals by American companies, including hotel chains Starwood and Marriott and online lodging service Airbnb.

- Tough topics -

Obama is looking to leave a historic foreign policy mark in his final year in office.

After meeting embassy staff he toured old town Havana, greeting the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who helped facilitate secret talks on the US-Cuban rapprochement.

In addition to the talks with Castro, Obama was scheduled to give a speech live on Cuban television Tuesday and attend a baseball game before leaving.

Republicans and some human rights activists have criticized Obama for dealing with Castro, given the lack of political, media and economic freedom in a country where the Communist Party retains tight control.

Dissidents called for “radical change” on the eve of the visit, but the Castro government warned that lectures on democracy would be “absolutely off the table.”

The White House’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, insists that the subject will be brought up and Obama is also scheduled to meet members of Cuba’s beleaguered opposition.

- ‘Soft war’ -

The United States spent decades trying to topple Cuba’s communist government.

Washington attempted economic strangulation, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro -- including the legendary, but unproven story of sending him an exploding cigar.

Now, after so many failures, Obama has bet that soft power will achieve what muscle could not. The aim, Rhodes said, is to make “the process of normalization irreversible.”

Although a decades-long US economic embargo remains in place -- and can only be removed by the Republican-controlled Congress -- large cracks in the sanctions regime are appearing.

Obama hopes that a host of incremental and seemingly technical steps will open Cuba’s economy, transforming the island economically and politically, backers of the policy say.

Lawmakers including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were with Obama, while a delegation of political and business leaders was traveling separately.

“It’s a soft war using visitors as the soldiers, commercial airlines as the air force, and cruise ships as the navy,” said John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Cuba’s regime, which for decades defined itself as the people’s bulwark against the Yankee enemy, has bowed to the fact that Cubans would rather do business than make war.

And as if Obama’s arrival were not enough to illustrate the sea change in Cuba, the Rolling Stones -- a symbol of the cultural imperialism that communist leaders used to rage against -- are playing a free concert in Havana on Friday.

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