Hardscrabble Havana life continues with few signs of Obama’s presence

A poster heralding President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba sits along a street in Old Havana.
A poster heralding President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba sits along a street in Old Havana.

President Barack Obama and his family dashed along the cobblestone streets of Old Havana on Sunday night. All that remained Monday morning was the welcome brightness of conspicuously fresh paint.

The bustle of the presidential visit had moved elsewhere. And in most Cubans’ hardscrabble daily existence, it was hard to know the most momentous trip in U.S.-Cuba history was under way.

“Nothing’s different at all,” Delva Rodriguez, 49, said matter-of-factly as she mopped the storefront windows of a purported office-equipment shop that appeared to stock little actual equipment. “I’m still working. The cafeteria’s open. Nothing’s going to change here just because he’s in town.”

Down the block, 18-year-old Adrian Pérez bought himself a pork sandwich and his toddler daughter an orange soda.

“Obama lent me the money!” he joked.

The neighborhood Obama whisked through the night before still felt sanitized, with Obama scheduled to be nearby Tuesday. Sunday evening, persistent rain and security perimeters kept many people away — as did the government, which had cleared plazas usually packed with vendors hawking tourist wares.

The next day seemed like any other Monday, except the hustlers were still gone.

“Old Havana isn’t only about tourists,” Pérez explained. And what if Obama didn’t get to see as many real streets, the ones awash with gray, crumbling buildings and cratered with potholes? “He doesn’t care. He’s not the president of Cuba!”

There was the line at a currency exchange featuring Western Union. The line at the after-school-snack pizza joint. The line at the state telecom, ETECSA, where Cubans waited to buy scratch-off cards with Wi-Fi access codes that cost about $2 an hour.

One of them, Jorge Luis Díaz, a 25-year-old medical student, attributed the subdued reaction to Obama’s presence to a mix of astonishment and skepticism.

We’re not used to all this. It’s all, like, wow.

Jorge Luis Díaz

“We’re not used to all this. It’s all, like, wow,” he said. “People are excited. That’s what matters. I’m a young Communist. I like the history of my country. We know that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight.”

It’s not that Cubans aren't buzzed over Obama. They just aren’t tipsy.

Hundreds of people lined Obama’s route under Monday’s windy but dry skies to the José Martí Memorial, waving at the motorcade. Sidewalk conversations burst with words like “superpower,” “blockade” and “the Cuban flag next to the American flag.” Passersby stood guard as police unwound yellow tape to cordon off the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, where Obama will speak Tuesday.

Three local men gathered Monday afternoon at the lobby of the luxe Ambos Mundos Hotel – Ernest Hemingway’s favorite – to catch a glimpse of Obama on television. So did waiters and cooks at a nearby flamenco bar, who looked sheepish that they’d all been caught during work hours surrounding a screen.

But a city famous for its iconography displayed no Obama pictures. No souvenir magnets. A rare (and thus over-photographed) commemorative poster of Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro drew a smattering of onlookers — and a black cat, which nestled underneath and drew chatter about bad omens. Meanwhile, stickers still stuck on walls celebrating Pope Francis’ September trip. Fidel Castro’s face was nowhere; Che Guevara’s mug was inescapable.

Children in white-and-red school uniforms bent over desks at Escuela Primaria José Martí, oblivious to people peering in from outside a peeling blue fence. Eight people — who weren’t together — tried, unsuccessfully, to pack into a passing taxi that only fit five of them.

Dust gathered on bare supermarket shelves that, in one instance, drew an off-the-beaten-path tour group that was promptly shooed away by a shopkeeper, annoyed that digital cameras were trained on his barren display. A local bookstore boasted an all-Che “social work” shelf and a “classics” selection made up entirely of Chekhov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Turgenev, Pushkin and Kafka.

What stirred some of the loudest discussion was the presidential motorcade, the topic du jour at taxi stops among drivers unused to traffic jams.

Obama prompted more street closures than the pope, Julio César Suárez said.

“And more people mobilized to see the pope,” he noted. “A lot of people stood by waiting to see Obama without knowing which car he was in.”

McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

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