President Barack Obama’s decision to restore ties with Cuba may have given him a revered spot in the heart of many Cubans.
Crowds lined the roads here to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. Along the route to a baseball game between U.S. and Cuban teams, thousands spilled into the streets and crowded onto balconies.
The American flag, once a sign of hostility, did fly beside the Cuban colors from the antennas of the vintage American automobiles that ferried visitors around the city. And an entrepreneur pitched a refrigerator magnet with Obama holding a cigar under his nose.
But they were still outnumbered by trinkets with images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. And in a country accustomed to disappointment and ruled by the same family since 1959, there were few overt displays of support for the American president, even as he spent the better part of three days touring Havana’s sights, eating its food and urging its people to embrace democracy.
Cubans cheered his speech in the privacy of their homes – the government did not erect large screen monitors in public as it has with other events. “Who would have thought we’d see this?” said Jesus Magán as he watched at home. “I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!”
A poll conducted here secretly months after Obama’s December 2014 decision to normalize relations with Cuba found the president more popular than either Fidel Castro or his brother, Raúl, who now serves as president.
Eighty percent of the Cubans polled said they had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” opinion of Obama, while 17 percent had a “very negative” or “somewhat negative” impression.
That stood in sharp contrast to the findings for Raúl and Fidel Castro, both of whom had higher negative than positive ratings in the March 2015 poll done by Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi International on behalf of Univision, Fusion and the Washington Post.
“The Cuban people see the president as the personification of the catalyst for change that they’re desperate to see take hold in Cuba,” Fernand Amandi, a managing partner at Bendixen, said last week.
Well wishers welcomed Obama with cheers and shouts of “USA, USA” as he arrived in Havana Sunday night, applauding the first family as it toured the historic part of the city under a downpour. Late Sunday, the streets were lined with people taking photos as the motorcade ferried the first family to dinner at a local “paladares” – the private restaurants that administration officials point to as a sign of a changing Cuban economy.
Orlando Laguardia, the self-proclaimed “Poeta de Cuba,” set up shop on a busy Old Havana street, with a copy of a poem he wrote for Obama’s visit.
Though there are issues yet to be resolved in the relationship between the two countries, he wrote in Spanish: “We exclaim with pleasure: Welcome President Obama.”
But many are skeptical that the presidential attention will have a lasting effect.
“Obama, he’s the best, the best. He is a nice president,’ said Antonio Michael, 42, celebrating his birthday on Saturday with friends in a park. “But we don’t have milk to drink; we don’t have gas for cars. The people in Cuba don’t have anything that works. We hope for Obama that we will get more than just talk.”
Cubans have largely tempered any expectations that Obama’s effort will lead to longstanding changes from a largely resistant Cuban government. And there’s the worry that the next president could reverse Obama’s policy – which he hopes his trip will make more difficult.
“The Cubans, one of the things we hear a lot around town is, ‘Gosh, we hope, but let’s see,’ ” said former George W. Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American who backs Obama’s outreach. “They know, they’re very in tune with our politics and very in tune with the fact that there will be a change of presidency and elections coming up, and what that will mean for them.”
Other American presidents have made overtures to opening Cuba’s government, but were rebuffed. President Jimmy Carter, shortly after taking office, tried to restore ties and opened a U.S. diplomatic mission in 1977. But his efforts were thwarted when Fidel Castro orchestrated the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when thousands fled to the United States, including convicts.
There’s hope – if not belief – it will be different this time.
“Obama is a good man; the other U.S. presidents, no,” said Manuel Alonzo, 69, who lives around the corner from the cathedral and was hoping to get a glimpse of Obama as the first family took a tour of Old Havana. “This is Cuba. We are friends, we should act like friends.”
Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark