Havana gets set to greet Obama

US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle talk with the staff of the US embassy at a Havana hotel, on March 20, 2016.
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle talk with the staff of the US embassy at a Havana hotel, on March 20, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

He will be first US president to visit island nation of Cuba in almost 90 years

HAVANA • The last time a US president visited Cuba - way back in 1928 - he got a rock star's welcome and his delegation drank Havana dry.

Is a repeat impossible when President Barack Obama lands? Don't bet on it. After nine decades, one Cold War, and a whole lot of bitterness since Calvin Coolidge's now forgotten trip to Havana, the atmosphere around Mr Obama's visit feels surprisingly similar. The US leader arrived in Cuba yesterday for a 48-hour visit.

Mr Obama, like Coolidge, is seeking to leave a big foreign policy mark in his last year in office by ending a stand-off between Washington and communist Havana that dates back to Mr Fidel Castro's 1959 ouster of the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista.

When Coolidge - or "Silent Cal," as the famously taciturn occupant of the White House is known - came to Havana, he was also on a peace mission. In his case, it was to dampen regional anger over US policy in Latin America.

Coolidge arrived on the battleship USS Texas, at the head of a convoy including a cruiser and three destroyers. Photos published at the time in the Cuban newspaper Bohemia show Cubans packing the seafront and streets.

"The crowds were tremendous and enthusiastic," wrote Beverly Smith Jr, a New York Herald Tribune reporter, who penned a tell-all version of events 30 years later in the Saturday Evening Post. As his motorcade wound past cheering crowds "blowing kisses and throwing flowers," the austere Coolidge removed his hat, Smith wrote. The president even found himself bowing to a "bevy of highly painted young ladies" and their "madam" pursuing international relations of a rather different kind.

Unlike Coolidge, Mr Obama arrived in Havana by air. But the presidential motorcade accompanying his armored limousine, the "Beast", will still make an arresting, even shocking sight in a city that for decades has prepared for possible war with its giant neighbour.

And the welcome was already gearing up to be just as lively as for Coolidge. Old Havana has been crawling with workers painting, cleaning and polishing, while ordinary Cubans were excited to see history made.

"It should have happened a long time ago," said builder Sergio Fundora, 52.

Since rapprochement, the two sides have restored diplomatic ties, signed commercial deals on telecommunications and scheduled airline service, and expanded cooperation on law enforcement and environmental protection.

Major differences remain, however, notably the 54-year-old economic embargo of Cuba. Mr Obama has asked Congress to rescind it, but has been blocked by the Republican leadership. Instead, the US president has used executive authority to loosen trade and travel restrictions.

Cuba also complains about the continued occupation of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which Mr Obama has said is not up for discussion; US support for dissidents; and anti-communist radio and TV programmes beamed into Cuba.

Little progress on such issues is expected when Mr Obama and Mr Raul Castro meet today. Instead, the highlights are likely to be Mr Obama's speech on live Cuban television tomorrow, when he will also meet dissidents and attend a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Mr Obama's drinking plans also sound rather Coolidge-like so far.

"Hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee," he wrote to Cuban Ileana Yarza this week in a symbolic renewal of postal services between the two countries.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Havana gets set to greet Obama'. Print Edition | Subscribe