US President Barack Obama is due in Cuba on Sunday to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century- long Cold War conflict that turned the communist island and its giant neighbour into bitter enemies.
Reversing generations of US attempts to cut Cuba from the outside world, Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters will arrive in Havana for a three-day trip.
It won’t just be the first visit by a sitting US president since Fidel Castro’s guerrillas overthrew the US- backed government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, but the first since President Calvin Coolidge came 88 years ago.
Obama, seeking to leave a historic foreign policy mark in his final year in office, was due to see old town Havana late today, hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday, and attend a baseball game before leaving Tuesday.
For Cubans dreaming of escaping isolation and reinvigorating their threadbare economy, the visit has created huge excitement.
Havana’s old town is crawling with painters sprucing up the picturesque streets and the Stars and Stripes – for so long the enemy flag – flutters from numerous buildings.
The owner of a popular restaurant even put up a poster of Obama, apparently the first ever shown in a country more used to images of revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara.
“A president of the United States in Cuba arriving in Havana on his Air Force One and presumably being received with smiles, applause and bands! Never in my dreams or nightmares could we have imagined that we’d see such a thing,” popular Cuban writer Leonardo Padura said on the Cafefuerte blog Friday.
On the eve of his visit, Obama even cracked jokes with one of the communist country’s most loved comedians, Panfilo, in a three and a half minute video sketch released online. The visit will not resolve all questions – or make everyone happy.
Although Obama has already loosened restrictions on US citizens visiting Cuba, the lifting of the decades-old US economic embargo can only be decided by a Republican-dominated Congress that is far less keen on detente with Raul Castro’s Cuba.
Republicans and some human rights activists have also criticised Obama for dealing with Castro when so many freedoms in Cuba, ranging from the media to politics and economic entrepreneurship, remain highly curtailed.
Dissidents called on the eve of the visit for Obama to promote “radical change,” notably a “stop to repression and use of physical violence against all political and human rights activists.”
The Castro government warned Obama ahead of his arrival that lectures on democracy would be “absolutely off the table.”