Ramon Espinosa/AP
A poster of Cuba's President Raul Castro and President Obama reads in Spanish "Welcome to Cuba" outside a restaurant in Havana. Obama is scheduled to travel to the island on Sunday as the first US president to visit Havana in nearly 90 years.

An eager Cuba welcomes Obama’s visit – with a dose of realism

The streets of Havana have been bustling as Cubans prepare for the first visit by a US president in nearly 90 years. Still, many remain cautious about what it will mean for them.

As they prepare to welcome President Obama on his historic visit to Cuba Sunday, workers are filling potholes and repaving Havana's streets. They're taking down propaganda posters that have shaped Cubans' images of the United States – one compares the US economic embargo to the Holocaust – and replacing them with paeans to domestic accomplishments, such as "Healthcare for all."

Mr. Obama is the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years, and his trip sends a powerful message rippling through society here, cementing a rapprochement that began 15 months ago. Indeed, as lingering cold war antagonisms ease the challenge for many Cubans will be to rein in expectations that the opening with their enormous neighbor to the north will quickly usher in more freedoms – and financial gains – at home.

Still, many see hope in a visit that is viewed here as putting the relationship on a fundamentally different footing – and one that could spur greater cooperation and potentially the overturn of the US embargo. 

"This is a great opportunity for us. It's the first time the US is having any kind of relationship with Cuba that's not coming from a position of superiority," says Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban quarterly cultural affairs magazine, Temas. "For many years, our
national interest has been defined as antagonistic. So, just to abandon that approach, and to try having a dialogue, that is very important ... more important than anything."

On his three-day trip, Obama will meet with President Raúl Castro and tour the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana. He will also reach out by giving a nationally televised speech to the Cuban people and meeting with political dissidents. Those moves are aimed at creating a more personal, human relationship between Cuba and the US, a major shift from the isolationist policies of the past several decades.

Waiting for change

Already, the US-Cuba relationship is vastly changed. Embassies have reopened, Cuba was taken off the State Department's list for state sponsors of terrorism, and the US lifted bans on Cuba's access to the international banking system. Obama authorized direct flights between the US and Cuba, and loosened restrictions on US travel to the island. He also reinitiated direct mail services between the countries last week.

Although these have marked important political shifts, the impact on day-to-day lives here has been smaller than initially hoped for,
locals say.

Rollan Marrero Gomez, a young graphic designer in Havana, says he wants to be optimistic about the change a visit from a US president can instill. But he's already waited 15 months without seeing any significant differences in his life.

"I will believe in a change in the society when I see an increase in my salary, and when the economy of this country reaches a majority of the Cuban population," Mr. Marrero says. "I'm still uncertain" about how the warming of diplomatic relations will affect me personally, he adds.

Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former ambassador and recently retired professor of international affairs at the University of Havana, says that despite Cubans' high expectations, there is a limit to what Obama can achieve during his visit. He says it's a problem that many expect Obama to tell them "I'm working to change the situation," since, despite changes in US policy, foreign leaders have little sway in Cuba's domestic policies.

That's part of the tension on the US political scene: politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, both children of Cuban émigrés, say the US is giving Cuba too much without demanding enough concrete change in return.

Reform on whose terms?

Although there have been important developments in Cuba on issues such as freedom to travel, freedom of expression, or economic liberalization over the past decade, human and political rights abuses remain persistent. Some 8,616 Cuban dissidents were temporarily detained in Cuba last year, according to the nongovernmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. More than 2,500 people were detained in the first two months of 2016.

In a letter to an opposition movement of wives and female relatives of detained dissidents, known as the Ladies in White, Obama wrote, "I will raise the issues directly with President Castro. The US believes that no one in Cuba or anywhere else should face harassment, arrest, or physical assault just because they are exercising a universal right to have their voices heard."

But, "the government is not ready to negotiate domestic politics," says Mr. Hernandez. "Yes, we need more freedom and more democracy, but not on the US's terms."

In a biting speech just days before Obama's arrival, Cuba's foreign minister echoed the sentiment that the US can't expect to direct internal policy, and that if it truly wants to help Cuban people it should end the embargo.

Hernandez says he's optimistic that Obama's visit will at the very least help better inform him and US officials about the realities in Cuba – something that will go a long way as the two countries continue to warm relations.

"Some say [Obama] is not well educated about Cuban society, like the majority of Americans who haven't been here for over half a century," Hernandez says. "So when he comes to Cuba, he may realize Cuba isn't the country he and his advisers had in mind."

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