In the rich and tortured history of U.S.-Cuba relations, this Palm Sunday was one for the books. Not only did a U.S. president set foot on Cuban soil for the first time in more than 80 years, but he received a surprisingly warm welcome from an island raised on a Cold War ethos.
Crowds braved the rain and lined the streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama’s motorcade, sometimes chanting “USA! USA!” — and not the more familiar “Yankee Go Home.”
Obama set the mood when Air Force One landed at José Martí International Airport Sunday afternoon.
“¿Que bolá Cuba?” he wrote on Twitter, using Cuban slang for “What’s up?”
“Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people,” he added.
Obama, along with the First Lady and their two daughters, spent their first day on the island like many tourists, taking in Old Havana and eating at a paladar — a private restaurant. Unlike the masses, however, their tour guide was Eusebio Leal, the veteran historian of Havana, and they had a private meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega at the National Cathedral.
The trip began Sunday afternoon, as the U.S. contingent was met at José Martí International Airport with bouquets of flowers and a delegation led by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. But there was one prominent no-show on the tarmac: President Raúl Castro.
The two leaders are scheduled to meet Monday for an official greeting ceremony, but Castro’s absence didn’t go unnoticed in a country that hasn’t seen a U.S. presidential visit since the 1920s.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump tweeted a critique that Raúl Castro “wasn't even there to greet [Obama]. He greeted pope and others. No respect.”
Even as hopes were high for the three-day trip, so were tensions.
Earlier in the day, dozens of protesters with the Ladies in White movement were detained after they marched along the iconic Fifth Avenue demanding respect for human rights and amnesty for political prisoners.
Although the run-ins are a weekly occurrence, the fact that the detentions still happened as the global media was shining a spotlight on the island underscores Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy for dissent.
Obama plans to meet with Cuban civil society, including dissidents, on Tuesday but has been getting heat for not being more outspoken about the issue.
The Republican National Committee blasted the trip ahead of his arrival, criticizing it as a “historic mistake” and accusing Obama of breaking his own promise to only visit Cuba if it showed more human rights progress.
On the streets of the capital, onlookers lined the highway and braved the rain in hopes of catching a glimpse of the presidential motorcade.
Rita Maria Zedeño, 54, was standing outside her house talking with neighbors when the president’s plane touched down. She rushed into her house and started fiddling with her television setting to get a clearer picture.
“It’s very emotional,” she said.
Obama’s first stop was with U.S. embassy staff at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. There, he joked about how much had changed since the last presidential visit.
“Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here,” he said. “It only took me three hours.”
He also thanked the diplomats for being the face of improved U.S.-Cuba ties.
“It’s all happening because of you,” he said. “Every day you’re bringing the U.S. and Cuba closer together.”
The president, carrying his own umbrella, paused to shake hands with well-wishers before heading inside for a meeting with Cardinal Ortega, who had acted as a go-between for Pope Francis and the White House during the critical stage of negotiations between the two nations.
If the trip is a historic milestone it might also be the beginning of a business bonanza.
One of the cornerstones of the president's new Cuba policy is empowering the Cuban people, especially the entrepreneurial sector. He and the first family capped the night by dining at San Cristóbal, a private restaurant in Old Havana.
Along with almost 40 lawmakers, a handful of CEOs and business leaders arrived with the U.S. delegation ahead of a Tuesday meeting on entrepreneurship.
U.S. companies have been eager to do business in Cuba’s untapped market, but they remain 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 deals since the rapprochement began, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide announced Saturday that the U.S. Treasury Department had given it permission to manage two hotels on the island and a third deal is in the works.
That news came on the heels of an Airbnb announcement, in which the online lodging site said it has Treasury authority to offer its services to all travelers in Cuba, not just Americans who fall into 12 categories of authorized travel.
In some ways the trip is also 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.
However, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz called the visit “so sad and so injurious to our future as well as Cuba’s” in an opinion piece that appeared in Politico.
In Miami’s Little Havana about 200 protesters railed against the trip.
“Today is a sad day for me,” said Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera, the son and grandson of Cuban exiles, who was among the protesters. “I never thought that I would see a president of the United States of America landing Air Force One in a communist Cuba. I grew up learning firsthand what it was like to flee communism and oppression.”
Even so, a delegation led by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, the first elected mayor from Miami-Dade County to visit Cuba in an official capacity, landed Sunday morning.
Before departing on a private plane from Miami, he told reporters — in English and Spanish — he intends to meet “with all sides of civil society.”
Obama’s visit 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 president is expected to give a nationally televised address before ending his trip that afternoon by taking in a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. Indeed, joining him and the first family on Air Force One Sunday were the wife and daughter of the late Major League Baseball Player Jackie Robinson.
On Friday, once the Obamas are wrapping up the second leg of their tour in Argentina, the Rolling Stones will be giving a free concert in Havana for hundreds of thousands of fans.
With tight security and many streets closed Sunday, for the majority of Cubans the presidential spectacle was relegated to their television sets.
At La Rampa restaurant in Havana, more than a dozen waiters, cooks, and bartenders crowded around a TV with their clients to watch Obama and his family emerge from Air Force One. Some took photos of the TV. Others took photos of each other watching the TV.
Considering the long history of hostility between the two countries, Miguel Romero, 23, never imagined such a moment.
“It’s a start,” he said. “Let’s see if they can solidify something. It’s been more than 80 years since a U.S. president has come to Cuba. And he’s coming in solidarity and not for some other motive.”
Miami Herald reporters Patricia Mazzei, El Nuevo Herald reporter Nora Gámez Torres, McClatchy reporters Lesley Clark and Franco Ordoñez and Miami Herald Special Correspondent Spencer Parts reported from Havana. Monique O. Madan reported from Miami.