In March 2016, President Obama visited Cuba, the first time a sitting president had arrived on the island since the 1920s. Not only was this visit historically significant but deeply symbolic and representative of the thawing in diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was especially significant that the entire Obama family traveled with the president, and this distinction was not lost on the people of Havana.
Experiencing the Obama visit on the ground was kind of nuts – the city was eerily quiet. I think a lot of people stayed home to avoid security and police who were EVERYWHERE. We walked down to try to see him at the Jose Martí memorial and got closer than we probably should have — I think the police and security guys were surprised to see four Americans wandering around, so they kind of waved us along bemusedly. We got to about a block away before they finally stopped us. As we were walking back, there was no one allowed into the areas we’d just walked through.
When Obama landed, we happened to be at one of the hotels in Havana, and people gathered around a small TV in the lobby to watch him come off the plane. When he emerged from Air Force One, everyone clapped.
The local news didn’t say a word about the protests against Raúl Castro’s government to release political prisoners that were quickly and quietly put down.
There was some muttering in the streets – we heard a lot of “Obama this” and “Obama that,” though in Spanish, of course. There was an eery cold front that came with Obama, so it was a torrential downpour that night followed by a couple days of cool temperatures. This was noted all over the city.
One night as we were walking home, a young Cuban man stopped us and asked in perfect English how we feel about Obama’s visit. He said the Cubans were very excited and after he heard us talking, he wanted to be able to tell his friends how Americans feel about it. We told him we were excited to be here for such a historic moment as well. There is a lot of mixed sentiment about increased U.S. influence here.
The motorcade caused traffic jams in certain high-congestion areas of Havana. The motorcade included over a dozen vehicles, all of which had Cuba plates. Typically when the president travels, they keep the US plates on the vehicles, but the Cuban officials insisted they switch them out this time.
Title quote: President Barack Obama, March 22, 2016