President Barack Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro today to urge the Communist government to seize a historic opportunity for fuller ties between the two nations by acting to expand human rights and economic access.
The meeting in Havana won’t resolve major differences between the two countries, antagonists to one another for more than 60 years, and it won’t immediately result in economic breakthroughs for the retinue of US corporate executive accompanying Obama. Nor will it still criticism from Republicans and some Democrats that the US president is meeting with the Cuban dictator while his government continues to imprison political opponents.
But it will serve as punctuation for Obama’s argument that US policy toward Cuba for the last half century has failed, and only American engagement with the island and its government can change its trajectory.
“Having a US embassy means we’re more effectively able to advance our values, our interests, and understand more effectively” the Cuban people’s concerns, Obama told staff of the embassy, re-opened last year, upon his arrival in Havana. “This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”
The day’s events will show the US and international public the full pageantry of a state visit, with a formal welcome ceremony and meeting with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution and a state dinner in the evening.
Obama became the first US president to set foot on Cuban soil in 88 years shortly after Air Force One touched down on Sunday at Jose Marti International Airport at about 4:19 p.m. He was greeted by Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs and its US ambassador. A short time later, a crowd gathered under a steady rain greeted the president, first lady. A short time later, a crowd gathered under a steady rain greeted the president, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, with shouts of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" as they arrived at the Plaza de Arms in Old Havana to walk through the city’s colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Obamas proceeded to Havana’s cathedral, where the president met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a former 1960s labour-camp inmate who played a role in secret negotiations preceding the opening of relations between the US and Cuba. They later dined at the San Cristobal restaurant, drawing crowds of onlookers as the presidential motorcade made its way through the narrow and crowded streets. Over two days, Obama will talk with dissidents and entrepreneurs. Offering a taste to Cubans of what a more open relationship could mean, Obama also plans to attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
On Monday, the business of the visit begins. The president is leading a US delegation that includes lawmakers from both parties, corporate executives eyeing new commercial ties with and within Cuba, and prominent Cuban Americans. Among them is Marriott Chief Executive Arne Sorenson, Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox; Brian Chesky, president and founder of Airbnb; and Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal, according to a list released by the White House.
In a concrete sign of the business opportunities emerging as a result of the thaw, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide announced a day before Obama’s arrival that it had agreed to convert three hotels in Cuba into Starwood-brand properties. Airbnb announced on Sunday that the Treasury Department had approved its plan to offer accommodations in Cuba for non-US travellers. Marriott International also announced on Sunday that Treasury had approved its application to do business in Cuba.
Even with little chance that Congress will lift the US trade embargo on Cuba before he leaves office in January, Obama is betting that a rapprochement, symbolised by his visit, has now become irrevocable, no matter who succeeds him.
“It signals the beginning of a new era, more than anything that’s been done so far,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’s among the leading US advocates of normalisation and is part of the delegation in Cuba. “Any Republican administration would be hard-pressed to reverse really any of this. This all feeds on itself. These changes are going to be permanent and expanding.”
Along with Flake, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democratic leader, flew with Obama on Air Force One. He was was also accompanied by Rachel and Sharon Robinson, the widow and daughter of the late Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson, whose Dodgers trained in Cuba.
The president’s visit is the latest step in an effort announced in December 2014 to restore relations with the Communist-run island. Though embraced by many Americans, the prospect of reconciliation with the government of Raul Castro has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
Uncertainty in Cuba
Among Cubans, interest in Obama’s visit is tempered by uncertainty over what might come next.
Yoel Oliver, 29, and Nayla Montano, 32, friends and partners in a small art stand at a seaside craft market, personify the mixed feelings on the prospects of the opening with the US. The stand, which sells paintings of Havana cityscapes, antique cars and musical scenes to European and Canadian tourists, is struggling, they said.
“To sell a painting is like winning the lottery,” said Montano, who said she’s never even had access to an internet connection to use the hot-pink encased Samsung Android phone jutting out of her jeans pocket.
Montano expressed little optimism that the Obama visit is a sign of improving times. Isn’t the American president in his last year of office anyway, she asked. And what is to stop his successor from retreating?
Oliver, whose wrists show the scars of surgeries that have strengthened his hands to partly overcome disabling birth defects, counts himself among the optimists that the historic visit begins a path to better economic times.
“A lot of people hope, and a lot of people don’t think so,” Oliver said. “I am one of the people who hope so.”
Obama is making the connection between his Cuba policy and his aspirations for improved relations with the rest of Latin America explicit by flying from Cuba to Argentina. The last visit by a US leader to Argentina, for a multination summit in 2005, ended with then-President George W. Bush rebuffed in trade talks by South American leaders and anti-US protesters in the streets led by Argentine football legend Diego Maradona.
While the friction between the US and Latin America has multiple sources, the isolation of Cuba is a common factor.
“The Latin Americans are really amazed by our enduring enmity to Castro,” said Jonathan Hansen, a Harvard University historian and specialist on Guantanamo, who is writing a biography about Fidel Castro. “Having a reciprocal, respectful recognition of Cuba as a country that’s struggling on its own terms, to treat them like they have a right to exist, is really important for Latin America.”