David Adams in Havana
Outside the luxury Saratoga hotel in Old Havana Cuban workers hurried to resurface roads on Friday in advance of the historic arrival of Barack Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in 88 years.
A battered old Soviet-era truck skidded wildly as it sprayed tar on the new surface while bemused tourists stopped to take photos. Around the city along routes that Obama’s motorcade will travel, new paint gleams from crumbling old walls.
Lea en español: Obama busca ser agente de cambio en su histórico viaje a Cuba.
Cuba’s communist government is putting on its best face to receive Obama who will land here on Sunday afternoon aboard Air Force One hoping to accelerate efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
From all appearances, the two countries – separated by only 90 miles of ocean - seem ready to bury the hatchet after 56 years of hostility following the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Critics say Obama has taken on a mission impossible. His two day state visit is designed to prod Cuba’s communist leaders to speed up reform of the island’s state-run economy and open the doors to greater free enterprise in order to improve living conditions for the Cuban people.
These are confusing times for many Cubans, both the island’s 11 million residents and the two million Cuban American exiles in the United States.
“For years we were raised to believe the Americans were imperialists and capitalism was the enemy,” said Cuban taxi driver Oswaldo Carmona, 51, who drives a beaten up 1981 Russian-made Lada. “We’re not enemies any more, but we’re not friends yet. We’re learning to be neighbors,” he added.
While most Cubans are hugely enthusiastic about the visit, they are less confident about Obama’s chances of success, noting that the Cuban Communist party has no intention of undoing its socialist revolution.
“This will never end,” said Eduardo Alonso, a 21-year-old medical student. “Maybe change will come in 50 years,” he added glumly.
In Miami where Obama’s Cuba policy has won over many Cuban Americans, skepticism runs deeper among older exiles with bitter memories of losing property after the revolution.
Raul Romero, a 78-year-old fumigator who fled Cuba in 1960, said he can’t comprehend why Obama is visiting Cuba while the Communist Party is still in power and human rights on the island are not respected.
“I hope he can achieve something for the Cuban people, but to me it looks more like a vacation,” he said.
While Obama is taking advantage of Spring Break to have his daughters join him in Cuba, Obama has thought long and deep about his Cuba initiative, determined to make normalization part of his presidential legacy, said Felice Gorordo, 33, a Cuban American businessman in Miami who will be in Havana for the visit.
“He has really internalized the importance of this trip for the Cuban people,” Gorordo said. “I think he recognizes his own personal story and narrative can signify a lot for the Cuban people,” he added, noting that Cuba’s population is 50% African-American or mixed race mulatto.
To be sure, more than a year after Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro jointly announced plans to normalize relations both governments remain deeply mistrustful of each other’s intentions.
“It was a leap for them just as it was for us,” Obama’s senior national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, told reporters recently. “It doesn’t mean anything’s fixed. We are very careful to say this is the beginning of a process,” he added.
On the Cuban side, Obama’s promotion of private sector entrepreneurship is seen by some hardliners as a Trojan horse that threatens to undermine communist control. While officially welcoming Obama, Cuba has publicly called on Washington to do more to lift remaining sanctions, including a ban on Americans from visiting Cuba’s tourist beaches, as well as demanding the return of the U.S. navy base at Guantanamo, among a litany of longstanding grievances.
Besides First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, the president will be accompanied by a large contingent of American corporate executives from cruise lines and hotel chains to telecommunications firms, all eager to do business in Cuba.
A bipartisan congressional delegation is also traveling to Havana, seeking to build public support for ending the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Obama will hold private talks with Cuban president Raul Castro on Monday, as well as attending a state dinner. He will also meet separately with political dissidents to discuss human rights concerns.
The most anticipated event will come on Tuesday when Obama delivers a speech to the Cuban people, to be broadcast live on Cuban state TV and radio.
Obama will use the opportunity to make a clean break with the past to state that “the United States is not a hostile nation seeking to promote regime change,” Rhodes told reporters in a briefing this week.
“The message from the president is the American people are friends of the Cuba people. We have our disagreements and we view the world differently, but the hostility is over,” he added.
With less than a year left in his second term White House officials say the president wants to use the trip to make his normalization policy “irreversible” before he leaves office.
“I think we have reached a point of no turning back,” said Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at Florida International University and former top official for Latin America at the Pentagon in the Obama administration.
But the pace is slow. “One gets a sense that the Cubans are still trying to figure things out. They are trying to move the radio dial to find the right frequency,” Mora added.
Raul Castro has made no secret of his preference for what he calls “slow but steady” change, in Spanish.
Human rights activists say the credibility of the trip hinges on how Obama addresses Cuba’s controversial harassment and jailing of political dissidents. “What needs to be clear is that engagement by itself is not going to change Cuba, you still need pressure,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.
U.S. officials say Obama will not shy away from human rights. “We have a set of differences. We are going to be very clear in public and private what those differences are,” Rhodes told reporters.
U.S. business executives are also looking to advance their agenda during the trip. Cuba has moved cautiously so far, holding out on major deals. A major American corporation is expected to sign the first U.S. hotel deal in Cuba since 1959 on Saturday, sources told Univision.
Two major U.S.-based cruise lines are also close to agreements with Cuba.
The Cuban government is committed to expanding free enterprise, said Jodi Bond, vice president for Latin America with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is taking a business delegation to Havana.
“Raul Castro consistently has told us the system is shifting,” she added, noting that the chamber has met three times with Castro in the last two years.
While progress may be slower than some would like, “more has happened in the last 14 months than in the last 50 years,” Bond added.