Havana, Cuba – Since I arrived, my Cuban producer Lagmi Chavez had been telling me there were persistent rumours circulating that US President Barack Obama would be visiting the long-isolated island.
A woman joked about a bet with a friend, revolving around the question of whether Obama would be given the opportunity to make a speech directly to Cubans at Revolution Square, the iconic site in the capital where former president Fidel Castro has made many a historic speech.
On Thursday morning, I awoke to read the news that Obama was indeed visiting next month and immediately texted Lagmi: “You were right!”
When Obama arrives on March 21, he will be the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. (President Calvin Coolidge has been the only US president to visit Cuba and he did so in 1928.)
“Once he gets here, he’ll really know what Cuba is like. I suppose what he knows is what he’s heard or seen in the news. But being here, he will know what Cuba is truly like,” said one young woman.
An elderly man told us emphatically: “They need to end that blockade finally and open up commerce with Cuba because Cubans here in the streets are spending a lot of money and everything is really expensive.”
The Cuban government arranged a news conference and Josefina Vidal, the general director for US affairs, said: “President Barack Obama will be welcomed by the government and the Cuban people with our traditional hospitality. It will be an opportunity for President Obama to appreciate the Cuban reality.”
Then, she quickly highlighted issues that are likely to continue to be sticking points for quite some time.
“In order to achieve the normalisation of relations between the two countries, the blockade has to be lifted and the territory occupied by the naval base in Guantanamo has to be returned,” she said.
In the 15 months since Obama announced he would begin normalising relations with Cuba, barrier after barrier has dropped.
Last summer, the US reopened its embassy in Havana.
An aviation agreement was announced this week to allow commercial flights between the two countries.
And now, President Raul Castro will host Obama and the First Lady on March 21 and 22.
Critics say the US is making too many concessions without seeing significant reforms on the island.
There are still great concerns about human rights and the lack of access to information.
Obama intends to address human rights and other issues affecting Cubans’ quality of life during his visit.
He says he will meet a wide cross-section of people, including members of civil society and entrepreneurs.
Vidal said the Cuban government is open to discussing human rights issues in both countries.
As for that bet about an Obama speech directly to Cubans at Revolution Square, I circled back with the woman and she seemed a bit glum.
She does not think she will win it.