Obamas tour Old Havana under the rain

President Barack Obama and his family toured the streets of Old Havana on Sunday during a historic, if rain-soaked, trip to Cuba, the first by an American president in nearly 90 years. Obama’s visit has been criticized as a photo-op to a dictatorship that’s made few concessions to earn it, least of all on human rights, but Obama argues this visit will let him make the case for freedom to average Cubans, and both countries can benefit

HAVANA,mars 21th (Theguardian) It is perhaps not what Sasha and Malia had in mind when their parents said they were spending spring break in the Caribbean, but the Obama family’s rain-drenched walkabout through Old Havana on Sunday night provided as much of a glimpse into the city’s future as its past.

Thousands more American vacationers are soon likely to follow in the footsteps of the first family as the gradual easing of travel restrictions is expected to allow up to 110 new flights a day between the US and Cuba.

Among the business leaders joining this first White House visit since the revolution, were executives from hotel giants Marriott and Starwood, who are jostling to open hotels, and Airbnb, which has already found private rooms for 13,000 Americans.

For now, tourists from Europe and Canada made up the bulk of those cheering on the Obamas as they picked their way through the slippery cobbles and puddles on Sunday; most Cubans had been barred from entering the tight security cordon and those already within it largely stayed in their homes.

“I’m disappointed,” said a park sweeper who gave only the name Joel. “Obama’s visit is supposed to be about openness. But it was not at all open. It’s supposed to be for people but people can’t see him.”

Asked whether he had hopes for the visit, Joel shrugged. “Not really,” he started and then tailed off when a stranger sidled up to listen in on the conversation, perhaps wary of security agents or informers.

When President Calvin Coolidge last visited in January 1928 he arrived on a battleship and toured the city in an open top Rolls Royce in front of large crowds.

But the first landing of Air Force One on Cuban soil brought the oppressive security that is a feature of all modern presidential travel.

At least the “beast”, Obama’s armoured limo, will have enjoyed a smoother ride than normal. Several streets in central Havana have been resurfaced with immaculate new asphalt and provide a stark contrast to the decrepitude everywhere else.

Decaying buildings on the Malecón sea front appear most ripe for refurbishment, facing out over a 90-mile (145km) stretch of sea to the Florida Keys and providing a magnet for young Cubans looking for somewhere to socialise.

Plenty of residents of the old town are delighted at Obama’s arrival and the promise of economic progress that many feel it heralded. “It’s great. This is one of the big events of my life,” said Nora Tavares, a retired shop worker. “We never imagined this day would come. It fills me with hope of change.”

But, as local historian Eusebio Leal Spengler led the Obamas through the deserted streets, the tour also hinted at the dangers of lopsided tourist development that could leave the stunningly beautiful city centre feeling like a permanent theme park if mishandled.

At times the tightly chaperoned tour already felt as if National Lampoon’s Cuban Vacation had been scripted by over-earnest communist officials.

Yet this was the informal portion of the trip, added at the last minute, and deliberately without any senior Cuban government presence.

Despite criticism from Donald Trump back home that Air Force One was not greeted by President Raúl Castro , the political portion of this historic visit begins on Monday when they will hold joint talks. The chance to address the Cuban people directly comes in a speech on Tuesday.

Obama himself appeared unbothered by the torrential rain, smiling and laughing as he was introduced to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that had been put on display for him at the city museum, and took a keen interest in a statue of Carlos Manuel De Céspedes, who granted freedom to Spanish slaves on the island.

White House officials say they are relaxed about the political risk of the trip, believing it a golden opportunity to show the fruits of the president’s foreign policy before he leaves office.

Instead, the risks for now appear mainly on the Cuban side. Economic development and political reform will be welcomed by many if they come, but Havana may have changed unrecognisably by the time the next American president visits.