Air Force One touched down at José Martí International Airport at 4:20 EST Sunday, marking the beginning of a three-day trip that’s expected to highlight the growing ties between the Cold War foes, even as old wounds fester.
Obama and the first family were greeted at the airport by Cuban delegates bearing flowers. But there was one prominent no-show on the tarmac: Cuban President Raúl Castro.
As the plane hit the runway, Obama tweeted: “¿Que bolá Cuba? Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”
The trip marks the first time in more than 80 years that a U.S. president has visited the communist island. And even as hopes were high for the visit, there were also signs of tension.
Earlier in the day, as they have for 46 consecutive Sundays, the dissident Ladies in White marched along Havana’s Fifth Avenue to demand respect for human rights and amnesty for political prisoners. After a rally in a nearby park with more international journalists in attendance than dissidents, it appeared they had escaped their usual fate of arrest and short-term detentions. But they decided to march another two blocks where state security, three buses and a pro-government crowd waving small Cuban flags and placards with slogans such as “Long live Fidel and Raul waited.”
As they approached the intersection, the Ladies tossed fliers and scraps of paper advertising their cause before going limp in the middle of the street.
State security quickly hustled them into three waiting buses that said “Operations” amid pushing and shoving. The last Lady in White had scarcely been removed from the street before pro-government Cubans began cleaning up the fliers.
It’s a well-practiced ballet that occurs week after week, but what made it different Sunday was the presence of so many journalists and that it occurred just hours before Obama’s visit.
He plans to meet with members of Cuba’s civil society, including dissidents, on Tuesday.
Antonio Rodiles, one of the founders of the Forum for Right and Liberty anti-government, said he has been invited to the embassy event, which is scheduled just after the president’s address to the Cuban people.
“We want to see a clear message about repression in Cuba from President Obama,” he said. “What we need is freedom for our country, what we need is freedom for our people. We want a clear message so people understand this in the United States.”
Many of the dissidents who gathered in Gandhi Park as part of the #TodosMarchamos campaign said they didn’t think it was the right time for Obama’s visit and said the United States should have imposed conditions on Cuba before he came to the island.
Obama told reporters last month that it would be “fun” to visit Cuba.
“There is no fun in this game,” said Claudio Fuentes, who often makes videos to debrief and record the bruises of dissidents after marches.”We need to see a condemning speech from Obama.”
The Ladies in White generally attend mass at a Miramar church before their march. But not everyone who attended the mass at St. Rita’s on Palm Sunday was opposed to the president’s visit.
As Vivian Treneard left the mass with a palm frond in her hand, she got into a screaming match with Rodiles.
“Look, I love my country,” she shouted at him. “I was able to study thanks to the Cuban revolution”
After she and Rodiles heatedly debated their takes on Cuban reality, Treneard, who works in the tourism industry, said more calmly, “President Obama is going to come to see Cuban reality. Although there are problems here, I support the revolution, Raul and all of them.”
The historic trip is rich in symbolism and opportunities. Along with lawmakers, a large delegation of business leaders are on the island to attend an entrepreneurship event on Tuesday.
U.S. companies have been eager to do business in Cuba, but leery of working with the Cuban government. The Obama administration is hoping the trip will assuage some of those concerns.
In one of the biggest U.S.-Cuba business deals since the rapprochement, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide announced Saturday that the U.S. Treasury Department had given it permission to manage two hotels in Cuba. The historic Hotel Inglaterra will become part of the chain’s Luxury Collection and the Hotel Quinta Avenida will be rebranded as a Four Points by Sheraton.
Starwood also has signed a letter of intent with the Cuban company Habaguanex to manage the Hotel Santa Isabel and will be seeking U.S. Treasury approval.
That news came on the heels of Airbnb announcement, in which the room sharing site said it has Treasury authority to offer lodging to all travelers in Cuba, not just Americans. The White House said a handful of CEOs and business leaders, along with almost 40 lawmakers are part of the official delegation.
After meeting with U.S. Embassy staff Sunday afternoon, Obama and his family are scheduled to tour Havana’s historic center in the evening.
Habana Vieja and other parts of the city along Obama’s motorcade route have been painted and prepped for the visit, even as other parts of the city remain neglected.
One of the highlights of the trip will be President Obama’s nationally televised speech Tuesday, when he is expected to talk about Cuba’s human rights record. On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Little Havana in Miami to protest the trip.
But the trip is largely evidence that U.S.-Cuba policy has lost its potency as a political issue. Once considered the third rail of Florida politics, polls suggest most Americans support the change, and Obama's trip was relegated to a side note on the political Sunday talk shows with none of the presidential candidates raising the issue.
The Republican National Committee, however, blasted the trip ahead of Obama's arrival in Havana, criticizing it as an "historic mistake" and charging that by traveling now Obama is breaking his own promise to only visit Cuba if it showed more human rights progress.
“The president’s trip is not about Cuban liberal movement, it is about legacy,” the RNC said in an email, noting that “Hillary Clinton is a steadfast supporter of Obama’s trip and shift in Cuba policy.”
The much-anticipated visit marks the first time in more than 80 years that a a U.S. president has visited the island and comes amid warming relations between Havana and Washington. The last U.S. presidential visit was by Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Obama’s visit also marks the beginning of a hectic week in Cuba. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be meeting with Colombian peace negotiators who have been in Havana for more than three years trying to hammer out a deal to end that nation’s half-century civil conflict.
On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Rays will play against the Cuban national team, and on Friday the Rolling Stones will be offering a free concert that’s expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
Obama will remain in Havana until Tuesday, when he continues his journey to Argentina.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Mimi Whitefield and Patricia Mazzei, El Nuevo Herald’s Nora Gamez and McClatchy’s Lesley Clark contributed from Havana.