On Sunday, March 20, 2016, President Barack Obama and his family landed in Havana, Cuba. He is the first American president to set foot on the island in 88 years.
As the New York Times reports, the late Calvin Coolidge made the last presidential visit to Cuba in 1928, traveling three days by battleship. “It only took me three hours,” Obama remarked upon arrival.
The Obama family’s presence in Havana is meant to signal a new era of cooperation between the United States and Cuba, to tighten the chasm that has distanced the two nations for almost a century. From the Times:
“‘It’s a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals,’ [Obama] told employees of the United States Embassy, his first stop in the country, ‘and build new ties between our two peoples, and for me to lay out my vision for a future that’s brighter than our past.’
Mr. Obama thanked embassy personnel who had brought young children to the ceremony. ‘By the time they’re adults,’ he said, ‘our hope is that they think it’s natural that a U.S. president should be visiting Cuba, and they think it’s natural that the two peoples are working together.’
The Obamas then set off for the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, strolling to a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and then to the Museum of the City of Havana, set in a leafy courtyard that features a statue of Christopher Columbus.”
Tomorrow, the president will meet “his Cuban counterpart” President Raúl Castro, “the first official meeting of the two governments in more than a half-century.”
Many Cuban citizens expressed their excitement as the date of this historical visit drew near. “It totally satisfies my soul to be able to have lived to see this moment, a moment I never thought I would have seen,” 70-year-old Carmen Diaz tells the Times. “I feel this visit of an American president to Cuba is being done in the most elegant way possible.”
And yet, what this visit signifies is not wholly clear. Shopkeepers were told to close early if their places of business were located on Obama’s sight-seeing route. The streets were deserted, locals ordered to keep away as the presidential family ambled through the city. Moreover, the Cuban government “has also made clear to all Cubans, with editorials and preventative detentions and by other means, that it will not tolerate public demonstrations or any other form of public dissent — against the government or the United States.” This resolve to keep a firm grip on Cuban citizens “has left some Cubans with nagging doubts about what this trip, and the change in United States-Cuba relations, really means.”
Some say that while this visit seems promising, Cuba requires a long period of revitalization before it is, as 17-year-old Juliet Garcia Gonzalez says, “better.” Gonzalez remains determined to leave Cuba and travel elsewhere until her homeland sees brighter times. But others are satisfied with this first step.
“It’s fine,” Carmen Diaz tells the Times. I’ve been talking to all my friends about Obama, and we’re just happy to see him coming.”