Today was absolutely surreal, as the streets were nearly empty in the several hours before Obama’s arrival. Sundays in Havana are generally quiet, as Cubans, family-oriented as they are, go en masse to swimming pools or to the beaches in the outskirts of the city. Adding to that the fact that most Cubans didn’t bother going out into the city due to rumors that everything would be closed in anticipation of higher than normal security needs for Obama’s visit, Havana was like a ghost town.
Everyone near a TV kept tuned to one of the state channels, which were broken up periodically with general news reports that included updates about how Obama had not yet arrived. More conservative (Communist) people draped large Cuban flags over their balconies, while others flaunted both Cuban and US flags. Once Air Force One landed, the tone of the coverage changed to something akin to the crush US Americans once had on the British Royal Family. Strangely absent from the welcoming committee, however, was Cuba’s president. I hadn’t even noticed at first, but one of my friends, who is generally on point with regard to being a proper host, was mortified, totally embarrassed. I speculated that perhaps it was a show of independence from the U.S. My friend agreed, but insisted that it was absolutely rude for the leader of one country not to receive another foreign leader at the airport. Cubans are opinionated.
Before we could get into it, the phone rang. A friend of his who lives across the street from a fairly well-known paladar just a few blocks away saw swarms of police gathering at the restaurant, and they had begun securing the block. POTUS and family’s dinner reservation had been made – the first visit of a US president in 88 years, and his very first dinner in Cuba is in the middle of humble, middle-of-the-road Central Havana! I raced down to see people’s reactions. As I got close, there were more and more Cubans lining the street, swept onto the sidewalks by polite undercover Cuban security, walkie talkies in hand. The crowd was giddy in anticipation, and the excitement became a musical roar as the entourage of brand new black security vehicles, imported for this occasion, became visible up the street. As the shiny black Cadillacs slowly progressed toward the restaurant, we all peered through tinted windows as best we could from three feet away. Suddenly, a familiar face, beaming as much as the rest of us, became clear through one of the windows. The people next to me shrieked in joy at the sighting, the story of their brief physical proximity to Obama’s friendly wave sure to be a story for the grandkids. To behold the teary eyes, the smiles, and laughter was such an incredible moment. Obama looked just as excited as the Cubans lining the street.
Obama and Raul will meet tomorrow at the National Palace. Even without Raul’s presence today, the masses of exuberant Cubans lining the streets have made clear, as though greeting a long lost friend, that Obama is welcome here. It was truly a beautiful moment, and I look forward to what tomorrow brings.