The 90 miles separating the island of Cuba from the United States seem just a little closer as Havana hosts an American president for the first time in almost ninety years.
President Barack Obama arrived Sunday afternoon with his family and a delegation of government officials and business and civic groups.
“No American president has been here since 1928. I think it’s special that he’s coming,” said Randy Williams Gutierrez, 28, sitting along Havana’s famed Malecón overlooking the sea.
Apart from a bilateral meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro, the activities will include a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, a visit with Havana’s Archbishop who has helped broker U.S.-Cuba talks and events with entrepreneurs, artists and other members of Cuban society.
But the most closely scrutinized events will be Obama’s speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday followed by a meeting with a group including Cuban dissidents and members of the opposition.
In Havana, the reaction to the highly-anticipated visit ranged from optimism to cynicism.
“Obama’s visit represents the end of the embargo, which is what Cubans want the most,” said Norberto Fajardo, who works in a market cooperative.”Cubans are friends of the American people. I believe it’s a win-win.”
But Onil, who only wanted to use his first name, said Obama’s visit isn’t going to change anything for people like him; he’s unemployed.
“There’s too many problems that are impossible to solve… The ones in power in the U.S. control through war and money, and Obama can’t do anything about that,” he said.
Similarly, conversations with Cuban-Americans in the U.S. reflect the varying positions on Obama’s seismic policy shift toward Cuba after decades of a hard-line approach.
Among Cuban Americans, varying opinions
Vanessa Dopazo, an office manager at a Miami, Florida law firm came to the U.S. at age 4 during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. She’s hopeful about Obama’s visit.
“It’s the right direction. We have to push for democracy in Cuba,” said Dopazo, who has traveled to the island numerous times and thinks the Cuban government uses the embargo as an excuse to justify the situation on the island. She is convinced people in Cuba will demand a democratic change once the embargo is lifted. “If we don’t start democratic negotiations, then nothing is going to change.”
Recent polls show a large majority of Americans favor engagement with Cuba.
Antonio Tremols does not agree. The retired Miami resident and former company executive left Cuba in 1960 when he was in his 20s after seeing three university friends be executed and others thrown in prison.
“I have come to the conclusion that the only reason is that Obama has a very big ego and wants to go down in history as the president who went to Cuba and met with a dictator,” Tremols said. “I don’t see how the Cuban people are going to benefit from Obama’s trip. How will this help the average Cuban?”
Joe Cardona, a Cuban-American documentary filmmaker and Miami Herald columnist, said he is not against engagement with Cuba, but against how it’s been executed. Cardona said he voted twice for Obama and “supports his agenda in almost everything … but Cuba came from left field.”
“Why not hold off on the presidential trip until you get something in return that benefits the Cuban people,” he said, like free internet throughout the island and acknowledging political opposition in Cuba.
“What we’re doing is lifting restrictions we’ve imposed on ourselves,” said Arnavat, who is Cuban American and works with individuals and companies interested in import-export opportunities with Cuba. “We have to think instead, what’s in the best interest of the United States?”
Alana Tummino, director of policy and head of the Cuba Working Group at Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA), said it may seem things aren’t happening that fast, but “you have to take a step back — it’s been only 14 months.” Like Arnavat, Tummino will be there during the president’s visit.
She points to the marked increase in travel among Americans, and subsequent economic and social interactions with the Cuban people, as well as to the recent news about Airbnb as examples of a marked difference from a year ago. As to American business dealings with Cuba, “they’re not going to happen right away but they are making relationships,” she said.
Apart from economic and diplomatic issues, Arnavat thinks that Obama’s changes have lifted a cloud of “illegitimacy, that everything in respect to Cuba is wrong or unethical.” Allowing easier access to visit relatives or send money “has made it okay for Cuban Americans to care for their families and their country of origin like every other immigrant group,” he said.
A space for the opposition
One of the main points of concern for many in the Cuban American community, Cuban American members of Congress and opposition activists in the island is whether the president’s visit will put a focus on the issue of human rights in Cuba. In the last few months groups have documented an increase in the number of arbitrary arrests and temporary detentions.
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello is a noted former political prisoner and Cuban economist who was in Miami on her way to a trip to Europe.
“I don’t think the American public knows what really happens to dissidents in Cuba,” she said. “Those of us who actively oppose the government are a small group.”
Most ordinary Cubans are more vocal about material goods or issues of salaries and living standards, she said.
In Cuba, former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer, who heads the dissident group Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said he welcomes Obama’s visit. It’s only when international leaders visit Cuba that human rights are in the international spotlight.
Ferrer told NBC News he was invited by members of the U.S. embassy to the meeting with Obama. He said he knows of 10 to 15 prominent activists who were also invited, including Berta Soler from the group Damas de Blanco, independent blogger Yoani Sanchez, as well as noted dissidents Guillermo Fariñas and Antonio Rodiles.
Administration officials have said they are confident the president will be able to meet with the group.
Speaking about Obama’s address to the Cuban people, Ferrer hopes the American president will be a good “orador” and give a speech similar to the one former president Ronald Reagan gave in West Berlin in 1987.
“It’s very important for Obama to tell Cuba that it’s necessary to tear down many walls,” Ferrer said. “The measures the Cuban government have taken so far are not substantial.”
In Obama’s last year, making these incremental changes ‘irreversible’
The president’s trip to Cuba will be Arnavat’s sixth trip to the island in less than a year. One thing that has struck him is that “last time I was there, it was Cubans who were saying we need to get this done, because this has to be irreversible. It’s clear Cubans understand that this opportunity that exists today may not exist tomorrow.”
Speaking to Cuban Americans at a Miami conference sponsored by the pro-engagement group Roots of Hope, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. government cannot impose a change in Cuba.
“We can’t say we are going to squeeze and squeeze and we’ll determine what will happen,” he said. “Everything we’re doing is to help them access a better life.”
Despite the bigger questions between the two countries, in Havana it’s a busy week ahead, with a historic visit from the American president and his family, lots of media attention and at week’s end, none other than the Rolling Stones.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com.