Barack Obama descended on Cuba with a pomp unmatched by the Pope on Sunday, becoming the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly a century, and the first since a revolution led by Fidel Castro toppled a US-backed strongman in 1959.
As he arrived, Obama used a Cuban phrase meaning “what’s up?” when he tweeted: “¿Que bolá Cuba? Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”
“This is a historic visit,” Obama said as he greeted US Embassy staff and their families at a Havana hotel. “It’s an historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people.”
A giant American delegation, estimated at somewhere between 800 and 1,200, swept into Havana this weekend, intent on closing a final chapter in cold war history and sealing the diplomatic legacy of Obama’s presidency.
Joined by first lady Michelle Obama and his two daughters, Obama toured Old Havana by foot, walking gingerly on the slippery wet stones in front of the Havana Cathedral.
The downpour notwithstanding, a few hundred people gathered in the square erupted in applause and shouted Obama’s name as the first family stepped forward.
Obama’s Cuba visit is latest step towards ‘new alliance of the Americas’
Obama and his family are staying in a grand embassy mansion, reputedly first conceived as a possible winter White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and more than half the size of the one they live in back in Washington.
The rest of the official party – ranging from the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team and expectant business executives, to some of the congressional leaders who helped broker the December 2014 deal to normalise relations – is scattered in hotels where the cost of rooms first doubled, then trebled to $600 a night, as the scale of the windfall became clear.
Yet opposition in Congress remains fierce. White House officials say another reason for going to Havana well before Obama leaves office, next January, is to try to prevent the rapprochement from going the way of other failed reconciliations.
“We want to make the process of normalisation irreversible,” said US national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who led an advance party to Havana this week, and also oversaw the secret talks in Canada that led up to the 2014 deal.
Though the president announced last Sunday that he believes Congress will finally lift the trade embargo once has he gone, even some of his own party are nervous that he has already offered too much too easily.
“When we see a photograph of the president of the United States laughing and shaking hands with the only dictatorship in the western Hemisphere, I will be thinking of Berta Soler of the Ladies in White and her fellow human rights and democracy advocates,” said New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez in a blistering Senate speech last week, referring to a Cuban dissident leader and her followers.
Three years of delicate negotiations have acclimatised officials to the need to tread more carefully when Obama delivers a speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday – in the theatre where Calvin Coolidge spoke 88 years ago, and where the current US president will call on them to decide their own fate, but not to demand instant democracy.
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