Dan Roberts in Havana
Barack Obama descended on Cuba with a pomp unmatched by the Pope on Sunday, becoming the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly a century, and the first since a revolution led by Fidel Castro toppled a US-backed strongman in 1959.
A giant American delegation, estimated at somewhere between 800 and 1,200, swept into Havana this weekend, intent on closing a final chapter in cold war history and sealing the diplomatic legacy of Obama’s presidency.
Obama and his family are staying in a grand embassy mansion, reputedly first conceived as a possible winter White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and more than half the size of the one they live in back in Washington.
The rest of the official party – ranging from the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team and expectant business executives, to some of the congressional leaders who helped broker the December 2014 deal to normalise relations – is scattered in hotels where the cost of rooms first doubled, then trebled to $600 a night, as the scale of the windfall became clear.
Hundreds of tourists have been bumped outside the city, and even the Rolling Stones, who initially wanted Revolution Square for their concert venue on Friday, had to work their date around the president’s arrival, which coincides with his daughters’ spring break.
For many American journalists, also on their first ever trip to an island just 90 miles from Florida, this is a Berlin wall moment: a step toward liberation worthy of Nelson Mandela, at whose funeral Obama and president Raúl Castro famously first shook hands.
But while the US trade embargo has done much economic damage to the island, where even international ships were once forbidden from docking if they wanted future entry to American ports, Cuba was not hermitically sealed from the world like some Caribbean North Korea; it has been walled off primarily from the giant neighbour to the north.
Those who study the torturous history of diplomatic relations between the two countries argue the symbolic wall that will come down when Obama and Raúl Castro meet again on Monday is at least as much about changes in American politics as it is about the new Cuba.
“There is a lot of talk that the purpose of opening up the relationship is to bring about change in Cuba, I don’t think that’s the case,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a director of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank in Washington DC, and a former vice-president of Costa Rica.
“Obama is doing this not for Cuba’s sake, but the US’s sake, because this had become an embarrassment for the US – a major obstacle in the relationship with Latin America.”
The sense that US politicians are like lost Japanese soldiers, stumbling from the jungle to discover the war ended decades ago, was compounded last week, when one of the fiercest critics of Obama’s strategy, Florida senator Marco Rubio, was thrashed in the state’s Republican presidential primary by a much more relaxed Donald Trump. Rubio, a Cuban American who called for more sanctions on Havana, dropped out of the race after losing his native state.
Though complicated by other factors, Rubio’s defeat in all of Florida’s 67 counties, except his home town of Miami, is partly confirmation of what opinion polls have been suggesting for some time: that antipathy toward Havana’s communist government among Cuban Americans in the state is no longer a decisive electoral issue, as it once was.
The relative lack of backlash to Obama’s overtures came as a surprise even to White House officials, but along-running poll by Florida International University has charted a steady decline in support for the deep freeze on diplomacy, particularly among younger Cuban Americans. The younger generation has largely arrived or grown up in the US concerned about economic, not political, issues and primarily wish to see the country of their parents prosper again.
Even in Miami, excitement, not apprehension, was the mood among some Cuban Americans who spoke to the Guardian about the president’s trip.
Yet opposition in Congress remains fierce. White House officials say another reason for going to Havana well before Obama leaves office, next January, is to try to prevent the rapprochement from going the way of other failed reconciliations.
Though the president announced last Sunday that he believes Congress will finally lift the trade embargo once has he gone, even some of his own party are nervous that he has already offered too much too easily.
“When we see a photograph of the president of the United States laughing and shaking hands with the only dictatorship in the western Hemisphere, I will be thinking of Berta Soler of the Ladies in White and her fellow human rights and democracy advocates,” said New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez in a blistering Senate speech last week, referring to a Cuban dissident leader and her followers.
Three years of delicate negotiations have acclimatised officials to the need to tread more carefully when Obama delivers a speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday – in the theatre where Calvin Coolidge spoke 88 years ago, and where the current US president will call on them to decide their own fate, but not to demand instant democracy.
“The difference here is that in the past, because of certain US policies, the message that was delivered either overtly or implicitly suggested that the United States was seeking to pursue regime change,” Rhodes told reporters in Washington. “Obama will make clear that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change.”
Jorge Domínguez, a Cuban born professor of international relations at Harvard University, agreed that an attempt to broker political reform inside Cuba would be flawed, even if it were Obama’s intention.
“On the larger question, which every president since Kennedy has faced: how to foster democracy and human rights – quid pro quo has been a perfect failure,” Domínguez told the Guardian. “Whenever it has been framed in that way, the Cuban government shuts down.”
Instead, US officials and commentators believe change is happening, but slowly and on Havana’s time. The Americans are hoping to encourage, not negotiate, further reform.
On the drive from the airport, where he lands at 4.30pm on Sunday, it would be hard for Obama to miss the various “Socialismo o muerte” (“Socialism or death”) slogans emblazoned on factory walls.
And when a White House press charter full of US-based journalists became one of the first direct flights from Washington to arrive the day before, the pilot was given a taste of the past: he was suddenly told Havana airport was closed just before the flight was due to land.
But there is undoubted excitement in Cuba about Obama’s arrival, which begins with a tour of Havana’s historic centre and a trip to the cathedral to thank the Catholic church for helping bring both countries back together.
Mistrust and anxiety remain on both sides, but the excitement was captured ahead of the visit in a White House skit with Cuba’s best known comedian, Luis Silva, an unusually edgy host for state television. Poking fun at the elderly cars and airport delays that await, his elderly character Panfilo, accidentally reaches Obama by telephone and offers to put the first family up in his own home instead.