HAVANA (CNN) — It’s the refrain heard all over Cuba right now: “Obama viene.” Obama’s coming.
The first visit of a sitting U.S. President to Cuba in nearly 90 years has the island buzzing. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the 10 subsequent U.S. administrations either tried to topple or isolate Cuba’s Communist-run government. Obama will change that Sunday.
Cubans, the majority of whom were born after the revolution, are still processing President Barack Obama’s decision to
restore relations with — and now visit — the island.
“I think many things will change, maybe we will have the opportunity to go the United States and exchange ideas. More trade, more opportunity to find a job,” said Samir, a Cuban who works as a “mule,” traveling abroad to bring back items that can’t be found on the bare shelves of Cuba’s state-run stores. Like many Cubans we spoke to, Samir didn’t want to give his last name.
During his three-day visit, Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, speak to anti-government activists and attend a baseball game between Cuba’s national team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Across the street from the ornate theater where Obama will deliver a speech that U.S. officials say they expect to be broadcast live across Cuba, driver Alejandro Martín takes tourists for rides in his pink 1950 Chevrolet. He charges $30 an hour for the tours, more than he would have made in a month if he had continued his career as an engineer.
“I am only 21 years old. I never thought a U.S. President would visit Cuba,” Martín said. “I hope that relations improve between the U.S. and Cuba, that the economic situation gets better. That’s what Cuba really needs.”
Obama will bring with him the promise of a more prosperous future for Cuba, where the economy has struggled to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its ally and benefactor.
Whereas Calvin Coolidge, the last U.S. President to visit Cuba, arrived in the island on a U.S. gunboat, President Obama will engage in what could be termed “cruise ship diplomacy,” bringing in his delegation of executives from dozens of U.S. firms eager to do business in Cuba.
While the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which only Congress can lift, still remains in place, Obama has taken the sting out of many of the sanctions. Soon up to 110 direct commercial flights per day between Cuba and the U.S., and relaxed travel sanctions will flood the island with American visitors.
On Havana’s long Malecón seawall that serves as a meeting point — or living room — for much of the city, musician Eliezer said he worried about how an island that doesn’t have a single Nike billboard or Starbucks would deal with the increased interaction with the U.S.
“We would love to have a lot of things,” he said. “But we won’t gain as much as we think. We will lose some of what is ours, our culture.”
Havana crafts-maker Buby Cañosa is one of the few artisans making knick-knacks to celebrate Obama’s Cuba trip. For $1.50 each, Cañosa sells Obama magnets that show him dancing salsa and appreciating a Cuban cigar.
“I think it’s a gesture, something historic,” she said. “His visit is historic and so people will take this keepsake with them: Obama in Cuba.”
At one of the public WiFi hotspots in Havana, Cubans crowd around cell phones, computers and tablets to read international news and chat with family abroad.
In 2015, the Cuban government, which tightly controls Internet access on the island, opened dozens of the public Wi-Fi areas following a decision by the Obama administration to allow U.S. telecom companies to do business in Cuba.
Over a video chat service, Cici sang happy birthday to her 83-year-old grandfather, Israel, who lives in Florida and whom she said she hasn’t seen in 16 years. There was little privacy for the online conversation, as other Cubans crowded the park bench where Cici sat with her daughters.
The Obama visit gave her hope for a family reunion.
“I am hoping for a little more flexibility, now maybe be able to visit our family,” Cici said. “Now at least thanks to this, we can see them on the tablet or on our cell phones. The separation has been too long.”