An hour into his visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama and family did what many Americans in the U.S. have yearned to do – played cultural tourist.
Despite a downpour that left Old Havana’s cobblestone streets slick, Obama and a familial entourage set out for a tour of the city’s fabled historic district.
And they capped the night at dinner at San Cristobal, one of the best-known “paladares” – the private restaurants that administration officials point to as a sign of a changing Cuban economy.
This week’s trip has plenty of official business on the itinerary. But the spring-break-timed trip is also clearly designed for some Obama family fun.
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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.
Under dark umbrellas, the family toured the historic district, stopping first to admire the Plaza de Armas, as cheers of “USA, USA” arose from a nearby crowd. They also admired a portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the nearby Museo de la Ciudad, the museum of the city of Havana.
This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”
Before the tour, Obama met with American Embassy staff and their families, telling the audience that the visit was “only a very first step” in a new U.S. relationship with Cuba.
“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 family ended their tour with a visit to Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a key role in Obama’s decision to restore ties with Cuba.
The first family arrived at the cathedral to large crowds on either side of the square, waiting patiently in the heavy rain. The crowds began cheering as Obama arrived. Obama paused to shake hands on his way in and waved several times as he made his way into the white stone cathedral.
Strategically placed near the church: a poster that bears pictures of Cuban President Raul Castro and Obama, along with the U.S. and Cuban flags and the words “Bienvenido a Cuba.”
Castro did not meet Obama at the airport, but the two are scheduled to meet Monday.
The tour isn’t the only bit of sightseeing planned. On Tuesday, after a planned meeting with Cuban dissidents, Obama is scheduled to attend a baseball game between Florida’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
Obama’s remarks last month 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, “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.
The American people and the Cuban people are friends.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Obama replies. “The American people and the Cuban people are friends.”
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 before Obama arrived that they heartily support Obama’s decision to re-establish 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, Fla.
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.”
Obama drawing criticism for Cuba trip
The Republican National Committee blasted Obama’s trip before his arrival, criticizing it as a “historic mistake” and charging that by traveling now Obama is breaking his promise to visit Cuba only if it showed more human rights progress.
“The president’s trip is not about Cuban liberal movement, it is about legacy,” the committee said in an email, noting that “Hillary Clinton is a steadfast supporter of Obama’s trip and shift in Cuba policy.”
U.S. companies have been eager to do business in Cuba, but 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 business deals since the rapprochement, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide announced Saturday that the U.S. Treasury Department had given it permission to manage two hotels in Cuba. The historic Hotel Inglaterra will become part of the chain’s Luxury Collection and the Hotel Quinta Avenida will be rebranded as a Four Points by Sheraton.
The detentions of Cuba
Prior to President Barack Obama’s landing, as they have for 46 consecutive Sundays, the dissident Ladies in White marched along Havana’s Fifth Avenue to demand respect for human rights and amnesty for political prisoners. After a rally in a nearby park with more international journalists in attendance than dissidents, it appeared they had escaped their usual fate of arrest and short-term detentions. But they decided to march another two blocks where state security, three buses and a pro-government crowd waving small Cuban flags and placards with slogans such as “Long live Fidel and Raul waited.”
As they approached the intersection, the Ladies tossed fliers and scraps of paper advertising their cause before going limp in the middle of the street.
State security quickly hustled them into three waiting buses that said “Operations” amid pushing and shoving. The last Lady in White had scarcely been removed from the street before pro-government Cubans began cleaning up the fliers.
It’s a well-practiced ballet that occurs week after week, but what made it different Sunday was the presence of so many journalists and that it occurred just hours before Obama’s visit.
He plans to meet with members of Cuba’s civil society, including dissidents, on Tuesday.
Antonio Rodiles, one of the founders of the Forum for Right and Liberty anti-government, said he has been invited to the embassy event, which is scheduled just after the president’s address to the Cuban people.
“We want to see a clear message about repression in Cuba from President Obama,” he said. “What we need is freedom for our country, what we need is freedom for our people. We want a clear message so people understand this in the United States.”
Many of the dissidents who gathered in Gandhi Park as part of the #TodosMarchamos campaign said they didn’t think it was the right time for Obama’s visit and said the United States should have imposed conditions on Cuba before he came to the island.