Barack Obama yesterday became the first sitting president of the United States to visit Cuba since 1928, and the only one to meet with its president on home soil since Fidel Castro came to power at the height of the Cold War.
The president is accompanied by a host of American notables, including members of Congress and business leaders, despite the latter being restrained in what they can negotiate by the former’s refusal to lift a trade embargo that has been in place for over half a century. The delegation consists of over 800 people and includes the Tampa Bay Rays, a baseball team from Florida, where most of the US Cuban population lives.
Undeterred by the rain and accompanied by his wife and daughters, he kicked off his stay with a stroll around Old Havana, passing by Havana Cathedral and stopping to appreciate a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the city’s main museum. The cathedral is a politically important stop, and he has praised the Catholic Church for bringing the two nations together.
Obama has spent a considerable amount of energy and political capital attempting to normalise relations with the government of Cuba, but he was keen to emphasise that it was the island’s people he was interested in. He called the visit “an historic opportunity to hear directly from the Cuban people” and is to meet with representatives from a number of anti-government groups.
Politically, it is a good time for the president to act; he does not have to face the voters again and the Republicans are distracted by the candidacy of Donald Trump and the fight over replacing Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. However, there still remains significant opposition to the visit. One US Senator, the Democrat Jim Menéndez, gave a barnstorming speech against the visit and protests took place in Miami shortly after the trip was announced. In addition, Marco Rubio’s departure from the presidential race, during which he was vehemently critical of the move, will give him more time to focus on attacking the administration’s Cuba policy.
Cuba is the first stop on a tour of Latin America, and it is hoped by the administration that the normalising of relations with the island will assist the US diplomatically elsewhere on the continent, where several governments are supportive of the Castros and unhappy with what they see as US interference in their own affairs.