News / Americas

    In Cuba, Upcoming Obama Visit Thrills Some, Angers Others

    FILE - A woman waves a U.S flag in Havana, July 20, 2015.
    FILE - A woman waves a U.S flag in Havana, July 20, 2015.

    When President Barack Obama touches down in Cuba next month, the first sitting U.S. leader to visit in nearly nine decades, he'll be greeted by some people thrilled to see a rekindling of ties between the island nation and its powerful neighbor to the north. But among the crowds will also be those angered by what they see as an undeserved legitimacy conferred on Cuba's communist government.

    It's a short visit — March 21-22 — but Obama has promised to raise human-rights issues and other concerns with President Raul Castro.

    Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez, a Cuban opposition leader better known as "Antunez," calls the visit an "insult."

    "The visit of the leader of the most important nation in the world to the country with the longest-lived dictatorship of the hemisphere, indeed, represents a recognition and encouragement [to the Cuban government]," said Garcia Perez, head of the Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Resistance Front. 

    Others agree, seeing the trip as undeserved.

    "We consider it a mistake to give that opportunity to the Cuban government without a public, political compromise from the Castro totalitarian regime to move toward rule of law," said Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban political dissident and winner of the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

    Before the visit was announced, Obama told Yahoo News that, were he to go to Cuba, "part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody."

    Fariñas hopes "that President Obama will stick to his word and meet with the non-violent opposition."

    FILE - At the annual Havana International Fair, Cuba’s first trade fair since rapprochement with the United States, the U.S. pavilion includes an exhibit for Pepsi Cola, Nov. 2, 2015. The island nation is eager for more foreign investment.
    FILE - At the annual Havana International Fair, Cuba’s first trade fair since rapprochement with the United States, the U.S. pavilion includes an exhibit for Pepsi Cola, Nov. 2, 2015. The island nation is eager for more foreign investment.

    Supporters of the visit say Obama has given every indication that he will.  

    "Obama has taken various steps, since 2009, which have benefited the Cuban people. I think the people are very thankful and they have admiration for Obama. … I think it is positive," said Miriam Leiva, independent journalist and founder of Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, an opposition movement formed by wives and other female relatives of Cuban jailed dissidents.

    The group's leader, Berta Soler, says nothing has changed in Cuba. On most Sundays, Damas de Blanco members march through the streets of Havana. And on most Sundays, they continue to suffer arrest and injury.

    "President Obama, you will arrive in Cuba to deal with a dictator and a thief. Reconsider," Soler tweeted Thursday.

    Ineffective visits?

    Since the announcement of restored ties in December 2014, Obama administration officials have been shuttling back and forth to the island, from the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the Secretary of Commerce to Secretary of State John Kerry, who re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana.

    Some on the island think the trips have had no impact, arguing Washington has given too many concessions to the Castro government without asking for changes in return.

    FILE - Cuban-American Poet Richard Blanco reads a poem during the reopening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 14, 2015.
    FILE - Cuban-American Poet Richard Blanco reads a poem during the reopening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 14, 2015.

    In interviews with VOA, residents of the island said human-rights problems — including political persecution, lack of access to the Internet, food shortages and low wages — persisted over the past year.

    "I see it just as another visit,” said Eduardo Cardet, coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement from Holguin, a town nearly 700 kilometers east of Havana. “He is maybe coming here to crown all this process, the idea that he has been selling: that the reestablishment of relations between the U.S. government and the Cuban people will definitively bring democracy to our country, which is something I don't agree with, of course,"

    Others are willing to see how things play out after Obama leaves.

    "I'm in favor of a climate of understanding between two nations. … if President Obama's visit will contribute to that, so be it,” said Dagoberto Valdes, director of Convivencia, an independent Cuban magazine. “Something very different would be if these [visits] all stay in photo opportunities and nothing improves for the Cuban people."

    Embargo a priority

    The Castro government has said again and again that relations can only be truly normalized when the U.S. embargo — in place for more than 50 years — is lifted. 

    Many Cubans agree the embargo has to go.

    "It is a very positive event that Obama will visit Cuba because that's who we reestablished relations with and everything is going according to plan, a little slow but we always have to stay optimistic,” said Pedro Rodriguez, a resident of Havana.

    He paused briefly, then added: "The embargo has to end for the relations to actually be relations."

    For some, the prospect of free trade has trumped other considerations.

    "Everyone thinks that the embargo will be short lived," said Yusdel La O Marrero, a driver for tourists in Havana. "Those who used to think of leaving the island, they're now reconsidering that decision."

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