“Who’s that? The president of Cuba?” asks Nancy Carwile, an American tourist from Virginia. She is pointing at a poster in Havana. “It’s Raúl Castro, yes, the president of Cuba.” “Ah, it’s Raúl... I imagined him younger!”
The first time Carwile remembers hearing about Raúl Castro was in an article she read in Reader’s Digest in the 1950s. For older Americans, Cuba was a memory from yellowing pages, but now more and more of them are getting the opportunity to visit this island frozen in time.
In 2015, 160,000 tourists from “the old imperialist enemy” visited Cuba, 77% more than in 2014. It’s the first drop in what may become a wave of tourists flooding the island as Washington loosens restrictions for travel.
On Saturday night, two Californians are sitting in Havana’s famous La Floridita bar where a bronze statue of a drunken Ernest Hemingway leans against the counter. Both are crossing their fingers in the hope that the influx of newcomers will not end up ruining the city’s unique feel. “It’s so free of Western influences,” says the new media technician with a strawberry mojito in hand.
In 2015, 160,000 US tourists visited Cuba, 77% more than in 2014
“If Trump wins, I’m coming to live in Cuba,” her friend jokes.
The two prefer to remain anonymous because, like many Americans who want to obtain to permission to visit Cuba, they had to do so under the pretense that they were taking part in a cultural program that, they admit, “no one checks you complete.” They were thinking about continuing their “program” on the beach the next day.
Around midday on Sunday, just a few hours before President Barack Obama is due to land, Old Havana is quiet. Hale and Madeline Kronenberg are strolling through the neighborhood. Hale says he is surprised that he can watch CNN and BBC at the hotel. “I imagined a more dictatorial and oppressive environment,” he notes. Hale hopes Obama’s visit will “promote human rights in Cuba.”
The Kronenbergs are talking in front of the cathedral. A Cuban family – grandmother Erena Cabarrocas, daughter Diana Soria Cabarrocas and granddaughter Samanta Soria Cabarrocas – is sitting on the steps of the church. They are excited about the Obamas’ visit. “We have to thank him for being so brave,” the grandmother says. The daughter, smiling shyly, says Obama is a “handsome man” and “the First Lady is very strong and elegant.”
In the old part of the city, Havana native Milagros Ortiz is feeling less enthusiastic. “It’s good that Obama is coming to restore relations to what they should be, but I’m with the Revolution. I am 46 years old, I have three children and not one of them has died of hunger so far.”
Later, a group of kids is overheard saying how wonderful it is that Obama is visiting when a gray-haired woman approaches. “Be careful with ideology. You were born in the Socialist Cuba.” They look at her, say nothing, before continuing their conversation: “And may he have the pleasure of meeting the Cuban baseball team.”
Americans see beauty, history and kind people in Cuba. Cubans see a sign of hope in Obama for future well-being. They do not praise him as if they were redeemers of his faults, but they do talk about him with appreciation.
A woman remarked that a priest who was performing a christening on Sunday morning paused to reflect on Obama’s visit. A young girl with common sense raised her voice and asked: “But why are you talking about Obama during a christening?”
Out to the ball game
One of the key moments of Obama’s trip will be on Tuesday when he attends a friendly baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays at the Estadio Latinoamericano. That will be the president’s face-to-face meeting with the Cuban masses.
The Cuban government has distributed free tickets to its supporters and civic organizations. According to online newspaper 14ymedio, which the administration has banned on the island, there are only two rules: do not applaud when President Obama walks in, and do not wear caps or hats.
English version by Dyane Jean François.