Some 1,000 people are expected at Havana’s Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso for the most important speech of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba. He will speak directly to the Cuban people about the complicated history of U.S.-Cuba relations, as well as his vision for the future.
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Obama heads to Cuba on Sunday on the first trip by a sitting U.S. president to the island in nearly 90 years. The last American president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, who arrived in a battleship.
“We see the speech as a unique moment, obviously, in the history of our two countries,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and one of the architects of the new Cuba policy, said Wednesday. The speech will be addressed to both Cubans on the island and the Cuban diaspora.
On Wednesday, Obama met at the White House with a group of 16 Cuban Americans to hear their views on the issues they thought should be stressed during his visit. They included Emilio Estefan; healthcare executive Mike Fernandez; Jorge Mas, chairman of MasTec and the Cuban American National Foundation; Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuban Study Group; Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of Puentos Cubanos; former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; and Ric Herrero of CubaNow.
Rhodes said the president hopes his words reach a broad spectrum of Cuban society. “We have not had any resistance from the Cubans to the notion that his speech be broadcast,” he said. Rhodes pointed out that on Dec. 17, 2014 — the day that Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Obama announced that the two countries were working toward normalization — Obama’s speech was broadcast in Cuba.
The United States plans to invite several hundred guests — the large U.S. delegation, students and young people, Cuban Americans, and “a much larger number of Cubans of various walks of life” to the speech, Rhodes said. The Cuban government also will be inviting its own guests.
“Of all the things the president is doing on this trip, in many ways, what he is able to say to the Cuban people is certainly as important as anything else that he is doing,” Rhodes said.
The president will be discussing “the future that we would wish for the Cuban people,” Rhodes said.
But he added: “Ultimately, he will make clear that that’s for the Cuban people to decide. The United States is not going to dictate change in Cuba or dictate outcomes in Cuba. But we have great confidence in the ability of the Cuban people to do extraordinary things.”
Another event on the president’s agenda that will be closely watched in Miami is his Tuesday civil society meeting, which will include prominent dissidents. The White House did not release their names, but several dissidents confirmed they were invited to the event at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
José Daniel Ferrer, general coordinator of the dissident group Unión Patriótica de Cuba, said he would be taking part. Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and Antonio Rodiles, director of Estado de Sats, said they had been invited but haven’t yet decided whether they will attend.
The invitation list appears to include dissidents and activists with various points of view on the Obama policy of engagement. While the president has said he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo, both Soler and Rodiles think it should remain in place.
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, leader of Arco Progresista, a social democratic party; Convivencia magazine director Dagoberto Valdés; blogger Yoani Sánchez; and activist Guillermo Fariñas also were among the invitees, according to Ferrer.
The Cuban government also freed four dissidents — Niorvis Rivera Guerra and Aracelio Riviaux Noa, members of the Unión Patriótica; Vladimir Morera Bacallao; and Jorge Ramírez Calderón — who had been jailed since 2015, Ferrer said. They were part of a group of 53 political prisoners Cuba freed during the rapprochement process, but they were rearrested.
The four traveled to the United States on Tuesday along with a fifth activist, Yohannes Arce Sarmiento, according to Ferrer.
“On the trip, we wanted to make sure the president would have the opportunity to engage broadly with not just the government but also the Cuban people,” Rhodes said.
Other highlights of the president’s trip to Cuba include:
▪ He is scheduled to meet with Raúl Castro on Monday in a session during which he “will be very candid about areas of disagreement,” Rhodes said. He will also review the progress in the new U.S.-Cuba relationship; the regulatory changes the United States has taken and what steps Cuba might take to take advantage of them; and regional issues such as the Colombia peace process.
Obama intends to discuss human rights and “our support for universal values in Cuba and around the world,” Rhodes said.
The day concludes with a state dinner at the Revolutionary Palace.
▪ The first family, including Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and the president’s mother-in-law Marian Robinson will all make the trip.
▪ Obama will attend sessions on entrepreneurship Monday in which American executives, Cuban Americans, Cuban entrepreneurs and government representatives will discuss how they might cooperate. Cuba’s budding entrepreneurial sector is an area “of the Cuban economy and society that holds enormous potential,” Rhodes said.
“We believe that greater economic activity on the island is going to be good for the Cuban people. It’s going to be a source of empowerment for them. It’s going to improve their livelihoods,” he said.
▪ The president isn’t expected to throw out the first pitch at the Tampa Bay Rays vs. Cuban national team baseball game on Tuesday, but he’ll be there.
▪ He will not be meeting with Fidel Castro. “Neither we nor the Cubans have pursued such a meeting,” Rhodes said.
▪ The president will meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a go-between role in the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. That meeting in Old Havana will take place shortly after the first family’s arrival on Sunday afternoon.
▪ The first lady plans to meet with high school girls and pose questions about life in Cuba that were submitted by U.S. students.
“I’d say there’s great anticipation here for the visit. The enthusiasm that we saw on Dec. 17, 2014, it feels like it’s just been growing ever since, and that’s what we’re feeling here now,” said Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.
On Tuesday afternoon, Obama leaves for Argentina, where he’ll meet with President Mauricio Macri at the Casa Rosada before winding up his Latin American trip on Thursday.