Plenty of Cuban officials were on hand at Havana's José Martí International Airport Wednesday morning to welcome the first direct batch of US-Cuba mail — including, perhaps, President Obama's note to Ileana Yarza, a 76-year-old woman who says she's one of his biggest fans.
"I've followed your political career since you were running for office the first time. Then I drank to your victory at the CNBC Havana office that glorious night," Ms. Yarza wrote in the latest of several letters to Mr. Obama, in which she invited him to make time for coffee during his historic trip to Cuba next week, the first presidential visit in almost 90 years.
I've written you many times introducing myself. Also I have invited you to a cup of Cuban coffee at my place in Vedado, if and when you would finally come.
Please, please, do visit me. Give this 76 year old Cuban lady the gift of meeting you personally. I think there are not many Cubans so eager as I to meet you in person not as an important American personality but as a charming president whose open smile wins hearts.
Please understand I very much look forward to it.
I would also love for you to come with your wonderful, lovely wife.
God bless you son, also bless your family.
Yarza also thanks him for taking "this so much needed step" of reopening diplomatic relations and easing other restrictions, such as direct mail and travel, after more than a half century. In December 2014, the administration announced changes in policy, arguing that "decades of US isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba." (The trade embargo, however, remains in place.)
Yarza appears to agree. "Over half a century cruel embargo on this lovely, enduring and resilient little island just did not work," she writes in her latest letter, which the White House made public on Wednesday.
Before Obama and his family touch down on Sunday, she should have a reply in hand.
As he wrote in a letter mailed Wednesday:
Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your support over the years, and I hope this note – which will reach you by way of the first direct mail flight between the United States and Cuba in over 50 years – serves as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between our two nations.
I am looking forward to visiting Havana to foster this relationship and highlight our shared values – and, hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee.
It will be a busy – and controversial – trip. Not all Cubans or Americans are quite as thrilled as Yarza to see the two countries normalize relations, set in a deep freeze after Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution, whose Communist Party is still in power today under his brother Raúl's presidency.
"To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy. The question is how we uphold that commitment," Obama said in December. "I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."
The White House has emphasized that Obama will meet with Raúl, but not his brother, who has been in poor health for years. He will also meet with Cuban dissidents, and Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who helped negotiate the warming in US-Cuban relations.
The Obamas' itinerary also includes a walking tour of Havana, a baseball game, meetings with young entrepreneurs, a formal state dinner, and, perhaps, a visit to Yarza.
He'll already be in the neighborhood. Vedado, a modern business district in Havana, is home to the US Embassy, which was reopened in August, and the José Martí Memorial, where Obama will lay a wreath to the island's original independence hero in the fight against Spanish rule. Nearby, at the National Theater, a speech about "how the United States and Cuba can work together, and how the Cuban people can continue to pursue a better life" may be broadcast throughout Cuba.
But Yarza is probably holding out hope to see him in person. She's "charmed" by the "gentlemanliness" of her new amigo por correspondencia (pen pal), she told the Associated Press.