A tale of two trips: President Obama visits Cuba
It had been nearly nine decades since U.S. President Calvin Coolidge—the last American leader to visit Cuba—attended the 1928 Pan American Conference in Havana when President Obama and his family touched down at the Jose Martí International Airport on Sunday.
The 48-hour visit has been hailed by some as an historic moment in the effort to bury Cold War-era hostilities and move toward a restoration of friendly relations between the two countries. Others, however—particularly members of the Cuban-American diaspora—question the president’s ability to reconcile half a century’s worth of human rights abuses by the Cuban government with the Obama administration’s economic goals.
The difficulty of that task surged to the fore of news coverage around Obama’s arrival as the president, intent on pushing the issue of free speech with Cuban President Raúl Castro, landed amid the violent suppression of a Damas de Blanco demonstration.
The Damas de Blanco—or Ladies in White—is a dissident group composed of the mothers, sisters and partners of jailed dissidents, who demonstrate for the release of their loved ones every Sunday after church services. By the end of Sunday’s demonstration, which was matched on the streets by counter-protests, approximately 50 demonstrators had been detained.
President Obama will be meeting with the group’s leader, Berta Soler, on Tuesday, in an effort to fulfill a promise to “listen to the people,” but human rights groups are unsure of what the effects of the meeting will be.
On Sunday, Obama and his family toured the Old Havana neighborhood in the rain and had dinner at San Cristobal, a Central Havana “paladar”—one of just a few privately owned restaurants.
In the U.S., Obama faces growing demand to confront Castro about the 70 American fugitives who are currently living in Cuba, and continued challenges with Congress on the issue of lifting the American embargo against the island. Also on Obama’s agenda is an invitation-only baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team, scheduled for Tuesday.