Rain, roadblocks can't deter Cubanos from historic Obama visit

Cubans are proud of this moment. For them, the American president's tour is a promising gesture for workers here who have long yearned to be lifted out of economic stagnation.

Joking about city's new-found cleanliness, one Cuban says Obama should visit 'every 15 days'

Barack Obama and Raul Castro 'are trying to change the psychological relationship between two countries,' says Canada's former ambassador to Cuba 5:02

Cuba's airspace was inviting. The streets of Old Havana uncharacteristically immaculate, the Cubanos friendly and excited.

If only the skies were as accommodating for the arrival of the first sitting U.S. president in 88 years.

Under a steady drizzle, Air Force One glided into Havana's José Martí International Airport on Sunday, with Barack Obama and the First Family on board. 

"This is a historic visit, and it's an historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people," Obama said.

For the U.S., this three-day visit is an opportunity to rebuild diplomatic relations frayed by 50 years of enmity that at one point pushed Cuba and America to the brink of nuclear war. For Cuba, the American president's tour is a promising gesture for workers here who have long yearned to be lifted out of economic stagnation.

A handful of Cubans gather along the Malecon sea wall under a steady rain to wave to U.S. President Barack Obama's convoy before it arrives in Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Cubans are proud of this moment. As for the rain, it may have been an auspicious sign, said Eliu Pinez, 37. 

The first rains in March are considered to be good luck here, and a cleansing experience.

"Rain is a good sign," Pinez said, listening to the patter from the downpour with his wife, Neivis, outside their Old Havana colonial home. "We feel no fear. We all feel safe in our country and we're really excited about this visit."

That enthusiasm seemed to be tightly controlled in Old Havana, however. Access to viewing areas inside the borough was severely restricted. 

Plainclothes government minders in mirrored sunglasses leaned against columns, whispered into walkie-talkies and blocked access to the main square.

As the rain came down harder, stern-looking Secret Service staff in ponchos joined them.

One popular spot was at the narrow side street of Murelle near the Plaza de la Catedral, but pedestrian views of the Obamas' arrival at the Havana Cathedral had to compete with weather-ready onlookers.

"La sombrilla! La sombrilla!" several people shouted from the back of the crowd, demanding those closer to the front of the security cordon lower their umbrellas. 

Some spectators lack the patience

For over an hour, hopeful Obama-spotters craned their necks and watched a fleet of black cars arrive to the cathedral. Spectators climbed barred windows for a higher vantage point.

A few people walked off.

"If Obama wants to see us, he should come and see us at our work. I'm tired of waiting for him here," one uniformed waitress sharing an umbrella with another woman said, their heels clacking on the slick cobblestone towards a local bar.

Cuban security officials form a human barricade to keep locals a safe distance away from Obama. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

For a while, it was only the sound of rain. Then, the whistles and roars erupted as Obama arrived, exchanged quick pleasantries with some members of the crowd, then waved briefly as he bounded up the steps and into the cathedral.

"Oba-ma! Oba-ma!" came the cries from the area.

When he was out of sight, the crowd, thick with the smell of sweat, cologne and rain-slickened sunblock, dispersed.

Not far off, Saurus Ibarra, 38, missed the entire thing, preferring instead to drink a "Cuban-style blood Mary" on his stoop with friends.

"I love Obama. He's the first American black president. But those security guys didn't let me go through," he said. 

Despite the inconvenience of the roadblocks, Ibarra said, there was one major perk. The streets in Old Havana are cleaner than ever.

"When the Pope came, they cleaned it up. When the Russian [Patriarch] came, they cleaned up. Obama, I hope he comes every 15 days!" he said.

Obama continues his tour of Cuba on Monday, when he will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony and tour the Jose Marti Memorial, as well as hold a meeting with President Raul Castro. On Tuesday, he is expected to attend a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's National Team before departing for Argentina.

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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