Cubans who perch themselves at sunset on Havana's El Malecon seawall often gaze wistfully toward the United States.

Now, the American superpower, just 145 kilometres across the Florida Straits, is stretching its arms out to Cuba.

The U.S. embrace came today with the arrival of Barack Obama, the first sitting president to set foot in this isolated island nation in nearly 90 years, part of efforts to normalize relations between two former Cold War foes, America and Cuba.

Cuba Obama visit

Locals in Havana have been wearing clothes with a Stars and Stripes motif this weekend, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It's a moment of hope for some Cubans — a period of political sentimentality for others, particularly those fond of Cuba's socialist revolutionary legacy. Mostly, though, it's a chance for real change in a country known for its decaying colonial architecture and scrappy ambitions.

"Everybody [was] waiting for Obama's arrival," 73-year-old fisherman Feliz Jose said, extracting a worm from a bait bag and laying down a coil of nylon fishing line along the Malecon. "The whole country is very happy. We're going towards good relations. We want our economic problems to be solved."

Shortages persist

As with any Cubans affected by "el bloqueo," the Spanish term for the 50-year American-imposed embargo on trade, Jose's life might be made easier by a diplomatic thaw.

Were the embargo to be lifted following Obama's diplomatic tour, Jose supposes he might be able to buy his own proper modern fishing rod.

But there are more pressing necessities. Toilet paper shortages are still common here, for example, and food shelves are often bare in some towns.

The loosening of restrictions on America tourism to Cuba would also mean a large inflow of new investment.

At Havana's frenetic Parque Central, where a bombastic rumba bandleader shout-dedicated his next song to Obama, one passerby admitted he was saddened by the warming relations between Cuba and America.

'What did we fight for...?'

"My family fought in the revolution. What did we fight for if we're now going to become friends with America? I'm very emotional about this," said the man, who did not wish to give his name.

Even so, it's hard for many to contain their enthusiasm for Obama's state visit.

Obama in Cuba

Feliz Jose, 75, shows off his first catch of the day at the Malecon seawall in Havana. He says if the U.S. lifts its trade embargo he might be able to buy a fishing rod to go with his coil of nylon line. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

All week, chatter in Spanish about Obama could be heard throughout the streets of Vedado and in Old Havana. You can hear it intermingling with the sputtering of 1950s-era diesel-spewing engines and squawking chickens.

Locals joke about the Obama effect fixing the most unsightly main thoroughfares with potholes, and about guessing where the presidential route will wind through based on where fresh paint and new layers of tar are. Orange-vested crews worked fast to repaint new road lines on Street 21, a major artery in the city.

"We see the changes already in the streets," says Robin Pedraja, 28. "You can know where Obama is going, because the black streets will be the Obama path."

Stars and Stripes

Cubans are also not shy about wearing their excitement about the U.S. president's visit.

Look anywhere in Havana and you'll see locals wearing T-shirts, skirts, handbags and bandanas bearing a Stars and Stripes motif. There are American-flag stickers on old jalopies, American-flag air fresheners dangling from the rear-view mirrors of classic top-down convertibles, and miniature American flags trailing from rickshaw bicycles.

Obama in Cuba

Fabio Grobart, 73, sits in John Lennon Park in Havana. His Polish-born father, Abraham Grobart, was among the founding members of the Cuban Communist Party in 1920. Although Grobart says he holds no ill will toward Americans, he insists 'Cuba has to be what we make it,' that its' not for the Americans to decide Cuba's political future. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

In an apartment window across the street from the Habana Libre hotel, a tenant draped a Cuban flag side-by-side with the American Stars and Stripes.

Obama Cuba

Signs of the thawing relations between Cuba and the United States are on display in downtown Havana. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Barack Obama!" one man shouted, giving the thumbs-up and proudly displaying his "U.S.A."-branded shirt during an early morning walk through a residential block.

Such outward displays of affection for the United States are not all that unusual. But that could be seriously risky political behaviour decades ago.

'Problem of men and politics'

Noemi Crosas Garcia, 76, was a "miliciana" (female revolutionary) who proudly served during the Bahía de Cochinos invasion in 1961.

"I never thought that I was going to be alive to see this happen. That an American president was going to come to Cuba," Garcia said. "I'm very happy. I think we should bring the two countries together, and I think it was absurd and stupid that there were lots of prohibitions."


The Stars and Stripes motif even made its way onto this woman's scarf. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

In a letter to Obama last year, after President Raul Castro met with his U.S. counterpart at the United Nations headquarters in New York, she wrote that she wished to give Obama a hug.

"I never thought the Americans were my enemies," she said. "This was a problem of men and politics. But I never believed the people were ever enemies."

Obama in Cuba

Noemi Crosas Garcia, 76, who served as a 'miliciana' or militiawoman in the early 1960s, stands near a photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara at her home in Havana. She wrote a letter to U.S. President Obama last December, encouraging the diplomatic thaw. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Neither does Garcia worry about Cubans losing the resourceful spirits and outlooks they inherited as a result of hard times and sanctions.

'Our identity is strong'

"Fortisima," she said. "Our identity is strong, but Obama's arrival for us is a time for rebirth and restoration."

Carlos Alejandro Rodriguez Halley, 28, is more apprehensive. Tourism has drawbacks.

"I don't want to be the toilet of the United States," he said, between drags of a cigarette and sips from a streetside cup of high-octane Cuban espresso. "The place where everyone goes to drink and then when they start with the hangovers, then they go back."

Obama Cuba

Noemi Crosas Garcia reads a copy of the letter she wrote to U.S. President Obama dated Dec. 17, 2015, two days before Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would seek to normalize relations between America and Cuba. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Gaining new money may also lead to losing something else. What he loves about Cuba's character, he says, is the country's sense of being "stopped in time."

He gestured to a boxy, yellow utilitarian-looking apartment block.

"I can look at this building and see it's from the 1950s, but they probably didn't paint it in the last 10 years. Even when they do paint it brand new, you can feel it's still not so new," he said. "I like that kind of feeling from Havana. I don't want shit like McDonald's here."

Concerns over popular Malecon seawall

He wonders whether, after several decades of American investment and influence, the Malecon may no longer be recognizable. He worries about an unmolested view toward the breakwater being spoiled by new development.

Obama in Cuba

Victor Manuel Marrero Cardero, 29, a poet and cafeteria worker who lives near the Malecon, wears a shirt that says 'Dreamer.' He says his dream is for Cuba to change and for the people to start earning money for their hard work. He says he is full of hope about U.S. President Barack Obama's visit. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

That already appears to be underway. A red dust guard has been erected around the dig site for an upcoming luxury waterfront hotel — an unusual new development in a country where crumbling, Soviet-style housing blocks and ramshackle colonial relics often appear all but abandoned save for the clotheslines hanging outside.

Already, the terminus at the Malecon is changing where it meets the cobblestone streets of an Old Havana boulevard. More Russian and American-flagged cruise liners began docking at the harbour here — a novelty only three years ago.


A young Cuban wearing an American-flag T-shirt sits along Havana's Malecon seawall during sunset. More and more cruise liners are docking at Havana and bringing tourists, including American groups, many on special 'person-to-person' cultural packages, Cubans say. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Pedro Freyre, a professor who teaches a course on Cuba at Columbia Law School in New York, said that when he spoke with average Cubans during his most recent visit there last month, seniors who lived through former Cuban president Fidel Castro's 1960 revolution told him they were prepared for the next American invasion.

"First, they remembered they were told Americans were about to go to the [Cuban] bases," he said. "Now, instead of boots on the ground, we have flip-flops on the ground."