By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES – Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba will be full of symbolisms that reflect the complex relationship between the two countries. Here are six key items on the agenda in this first trip by a US president to the Carribean island since the 1959 revolution, reports dpa news.
MEETING WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: Obama begins his visit on Sunday by meeting with the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy. The meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega is of relevance, since the Church is an important political player on the island run by the Communist Party. After being marginalized for decades, the Church has become an important partner of the Castro regime, a role gradually assumed after the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999 to Cuba. Ortega successfully mediated for the release of political prisoners in 2010 and the Vatican was a key intermediary in the thaw between Washington and Havana announced in December 2014.
RAUL CASTRO: The official program of the visit starts on Monday. After laying flowers at the monument to Cuban national hero Jose Marti in the Plaza of the Revolution, as mandated by the diplomatic protocol, Obama will meet with his counterpart Raul Castro in the neighboring Palace of the Revolution. The presidents have already officially met twice since December 2014. They are expected to give new impetus to the rapproachment in talks whose real scope will most likely not be known know immediately. Later, Castro will honor his guest and family with a state dinner.
MEETINGS WITH THE PRIVATE SECTOR: Obama also will meet Monday with representatives of the emerging private sector, one of the clear signs of support for economic openness that the US leader wants to send during his visit. In recent years, the government of Raul Castro has opened limited spaces for private initiative, after decades of state monopoly. According to official figures, around 5% of Cubans have taken out licenses to work as “self-employed”, which also includes those working for others. Especially in Havana more and more restaurants, trendy shops, repair shops and other small businesses are run by individuals. Obama’s meeting with thriving small business owners will be held at the highly popular Cuban Art Factory in the neighborhood of Vedado, an artistic center where exhibitions, concerts and discussion forums are organized.
HISTORIC SPEECH IN HAVANA: Tuesday morning Obama will deliver a speech at the Gran Teatro de La Habana, located a few meters from the Old Capitol building, a replica of the US Capitol, in the city center. The Cuban government has said that the message will be televised live on the island, a very unusual move in a country where all media are state and in which there is usually no room for criticism of the one-party system. Expectations are high as to what words Obama might devote to the situation of human rights in Cuba. Another possibility is that the president tries to build bridges between the island and the large Cuban exile community living in the United States, especially Florida. The theater, with a capacity for 1,500 people, will likely be filled by supporters of the Castro regime.
DISSIDENTS: After his speech, the US President has scheduled a time meet with dissidents at the US Embassy. Obama made these encounters almost a condition for his visit to Havana. The president has also said that his country will continue to advocate for civil rights on the island despite its new policy of dialogue.
The meeting at the US embassy will include among the dissidents Manuel Cuesta Morua, Jose Daniel Ferrer and opposition blogger and journalist Yoani Sánchez.
BASEBALL, A PASSION THAT UNITES CUBA AND THE USA: Obama’s visit will close on Tuesday attending an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The game will be played at the iconic Latin American Stadium, renovated for the occasion. Baseball is a sport that arouses passions on both sides of the Florida Straits. Many would like to see Obama throw out the first ball as the guest of honor. If he does, it would be a landmark image for a visit that has since already secured a place in the history books.