Big week ahead in Havana with historic Obama visit

There are unprecedented sights and sounds around Havana: fleets of burgundy-colored Jeeps carrying U.S. security teams; huge U.S. Air Force C17 transport planes sitting on the tarmac at José Martí International Airport; 18-wheelers sporting Pennsylvania and Florida plates parked outside the freshly painted Latinoamericano Stadium — and lots of U.S. officials moving around town.

Signs of President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Cuba, which starts Sunday, are everywhere.

Visitors have been evicted from their hotels to make way not just for the presidential visit but for Major League Baseball: The Tampa Bay Rays have hit the practice field to prepare for their game against the Cuban national team on Tuesday.

To cap off the wild week, the Rolling Stones will play a Good Friday concert at a Havana sports complex. The free performance is expected to draw upwards of 500,000 Cubans and sends a message that change is in the air.

Obama’s visit — the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge came by in 1928 — caps off a policy of rapprochement with Cuba that began on Dec. 17, 2014, when the two countries announced they had begun to work on normalized relations and put past differences behind them.

To get ready for the president, the streets along his route from the airport have been swept and cleaned. The iconic seaside Malecón highway has been resurfaced and striped as has Paseo del Prado, where the president will pass en route to give a speech Tuesday — to be broadcast all over the island — from the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso.

Homes have been repainted by the government in neighborhoods such as Vedado and Boyeros, which the Obama motorcade will drive by. In the past few weeks, dozens of new street lights have gone up along the Malecón.

The stadium where the Tampa Bay Rays will play the Cuban national team on Tuesday, with the president in attendance, has been painted a bright royal blue and undergone extensive renovation. On Saturday, groups of young dancers and gymnasts and security brigades were rehearsing for the big day. Groups with MLB credentials on their necks filed in and out of the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, MLB headquarters for the week.

Ileana Yarza, a retired economist and art dealer, has become a celebrity of sorts. She started to write Obama when he was still a presidential candidate, asking him to lift the embargo. Yarza has received various responses over the years. But when the president wrote her a letter and put it on the first direct-mail flight from the United States to Cuba on Wednesday, the media suddenly beat a path to her door.

When the letter from the White House, stamped USA-Cuba direct, arrived at her Vedado home Thursday, she said she waited until her children arrived before she opened it.

She has invited the president to have coffee with her, but doesn’t know if he’ll have time on this trip.

“President Obama’s visit is very important and I hope good things come of it,” she said. “It’s about building bridges and stopping the hate and revenge.”

Cubans joke that Delegado Obama is coming to visit: They’re accustomed to appealing to their local delegates to the National Assembly of People’s Power when something needs to be repaired or spruced up in their neighborhoods. They often wait a long time.

But Delegado Obama is very effective at getting things done. “People are saying they wish he would come once a month and visit other neighborhoods as well,” said Carlos Calderón, a retired merchant marine. “Can you imagine what this place would look like?”

Calderón’s building in Vedado was one that got a fresh coat of paint. “I say ‘Thank you, brother Obama,’” he said. On a more serious note, he said, that “Cubans are putting a lot of hope into this visit that things will change, that the embargo will be lifted.”

Originally the Rolling Stones concert, which has been in the works since December, was scheduled Sunday night, the day that Obama arrives. But the Cuban government asked the Stones organization to change the dates, said Dale Skjerseth, the band’s production manager.

After Obama’s trip was announced, the Rolling Stones had hoped he might be able to attend.

But now, Skjerseth quipped, “he’s our opening act.”

There’s scarcely a hotel room to be found in Havana this week between Major League Baseball — which requested 400 rooms for executives, ball players and sports writers — and the presidential visit. Some guests have been relocated to hotels outside the city to make way for official delegations and journalists.

Nearly 200 American journalists have applied for credentials, but media outlets from around the world also consider the Obama visit big news.

Some Cubans can’t decide whether they’re more excited about the presidential visit or the Stones concert.

Yuniesky González Bernal, an electrical engineer, was in London in 1966 when he saw the Stones play. He was there after winning a prize that allowed him to visit England at age 22. He never forgot the experience.

“Of course I’m going. I’ll be one of the first to arrive. This place is going to fill up fast,” he said Saturday as he lounged against a fence watching the stage preparations.

The stage has come from Belgium, on 61 sea containers packed with lighting, towers and video screens. A 747 aircraft from Mexico City landed Friday night with the final load of equipment.

The Stones wound up a Latin American tour in Mexico City Friday night. But Skjerseth said the group wants their Cuba concert to be everything they offered in Latin America and more.

The Stones performance will be the first rock concert ever by a British group in Cuba, where during the 1960s and ’70s rock was prohibited and teenagers listened to it secretly in their rooms.

Now rock is an open and popular genre.

“The Rolling Stones like to be first in everything. They set standards,” Skjerseth said. For their Cuba concert, the Stones have decided to pull out all the stops, he said. “I believe you’ll never see a show like this again.”

Juan Carlos Pedroso, who was watching the concert stage preparations, said he wouldn’t be attending because he doesn’t like big crowds. “That’s not my style, but I like the music and I’ll be watching at home,” he said.

He said he’ll also be watching Obama’s Tuesday speech. “Certainly,” he said, “It’s very important.”

Asked if Obama was popular in Cuba, he shrugged his shoulders.

“Let me put it this way. It would be hard for him not to be popular in Cuba.”

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