Obama trip to Cuba includes spring break for his family

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha walk in downtown Old Havana on Sunday.
President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha walk in downtown Old Havana on Sunday. TNS

President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba has plenty of official business on the itinerary. But the spring-break-timed trip is also clearly designed for some Obama family fun.

Accompanying Obama when Air Force One touched down in Cuba Sunday afternoon for the three-day visit: First Lady Michelle Obama, their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, and Obama’s mother in law, Marian Robinson.

“This is beautiful, we need strong relationships,” said Marete Xorano, who manages a small shop in Old Havana that sells Cuban-made clothing, including the signature guayabera. “For a long time, we have had difficulties. I see this as a very good move.”

Her shop is just steps from the Havana Cathedral where the entire Obama family on Sunday planned to start with a tour of Old Havana, the cobblestoned original section of the city. They met there at the Catedral de la Habana with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a key role in the Obama administration’s decision to restore ties with Cuba.

It was Ortega who, three months before Obama announced that the U.S. would reestablish full diplomatic ties with the country, hand delivered a letter to the White House from Pope Francis, who pledged to do all he could to aid negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba.

The family, which is likely to visit other cultural sites in the area including museums, is all but certain to pass by a poster strategically placed near the church that bears pictures of Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Obama, along with the U.S. and Cuban flags and the words Bienvenido a Cuba.

Obama is to meet Monday with Castro, who will host Obama and the first lady at a state dinner.

And on Tuesday, after meeting with Cuban dissidents, Obama is scheduled to attend a baseball game between Florida’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Obama has played tourist in a number of other countries. He capped a trip to Israel and Jordan in 2013 with a private tour of the ancient city of Petra. In 2014, he visited Stonehenge after a NATO summit.

And it’s not the first time the family has joined a presidential trip: the girls and their grandmother joined the first couple on a trip to Africa in 2013 and accompanied their parents to Ireland and Germany.

But Obama’s remarks last month to reporters that it would be “fun” to visit Cuba rankled critics, who say Obama’s trip is premature and that the administration’s decision to relax some prohibitions against doing business with Cuba will do little to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans while enriching the authoritarian government that runs the country.

“I have nothing against the president having fun, but can’t he just go to Disney World?” Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren said at the time. “That would be a much better message.”

Unlike pure family vacations, this one adds to official business. And White House officials say the tour and the baseball game are ways of illustrating the ties between the U.S. and Cuba.

“If all we were doing was going to a baseball game, that would certainly send the wrong message,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told the Miami Herald editorial board last week. “But I think one of the things we want to show is the breadth of the engagements between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Obama took part in a Cuban comedy bit before leaving Washington, filming a skit with a popular Havana-based comedian, “Pánfilo,” who routinely tries to call Obama as part of a running gag.

“I’m so glad you will come to visit so that you can know Cuba, its people,” Panfilo says.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Obama replies. “The American people and the Cuban people are friends.”

The first family will stay at the ornate U.S. ambassador’s residence, considered one of the most palatial diplomatic homes of its kind in Cuba. It includes sprawling grounds with tennis courts and a swimming pool.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark