For Obamas in Cuba, a little sightseeing before business

The real purpose of Obama’s trip to Cuba

President Obama heads to Cuba on Monday to shore up U.S. relations with the small island nation. But no visit from a sitting president will create something that the next president cannot undo.
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President Obama heads to Cuba on Monday to shore up U.S. relations with the small island nation. But no visit from a sitting president will create something that the next president cannot undo.

President Barack Obama arrives in Havana today on an historic trip that he hopes will secure his legacy as the U.S. president who prodded Cuba’s authoritarian government to change its ways.

But the spring-break-timed trip is also clearly designed for some Obama family fun. Accompanying Obama on the three-day visit: first lady Michelle Obama, their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, and Obama’s mother in law, Marian Robinson.

It’s the kind of travel that hasn’t been possible for most American families for decades because U.S. policy prevented Americans from seeing Cuba unless they were on authorized tours.

But the White House has relaxed restrictions aimed at tightening an economic noose around Cuba, and Cubans said they hope to welcome more American families.

“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 will start a tour of Old Havana, the cobblestoned original section of the city. They will meet there 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 President Raul 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: capping 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 Sustern said at the time. “That would be a much better message.”

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, “Panfilo,” 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.

Maryanne Westphal and Barbara Eidam, both 67 and friends since high school, were finishing up a week in Cuba on a cultural exchange on Saturday and said they heartily support Obama’s decision to reestablish ties and the cultural outreach.

“I imagine a lot of Americans have different thoughts about ‘Oh, it’s Obama’s vacation,’ but I think it’s great he wants to open up Cuba,” said Westphal, of Gainesville, FL.

Eidam, of Pinehurst, N.C. said her grandparents vacationed in Cuba before the U.S. cut off ties in the wake of Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and that she’s always wanted to see it.

“I think it’s positive that we’re relaxing the restrictions, we can even take back more rum and that’s a good thing,” she said. “But it’s also right for the Cuban people. It gives them more opportunities and that’s a good thing, too.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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