Havana prepares for Obama's arrival

On the face of it Havana doesn't feel like it's changed that much, though one is starting to see subtle differences Credit: Reuters
  • By ITV News' Matt Williams

A buzz is sweeping across Havana as the city prepares for a visit the likes of which nobody here will have seen before.

This city is long-used to global leaders landing on its shores - Nelson Mandela travelled here in 1991 and more recently the island has welcomed Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis.

But this event is in a different category altogether.

A US president visiting for the first time in nearly 90 years, something unthinkable until recently when the two countries began the process of normalising diplomatic relations.

Fidel Castro's tank on display outside the Museum of the Revolution in Havana is a reminder of Cuba's past Credit: ITV News

This trip is historic and its significance is clear to everyone we speak to.

The last US president to visit these shores was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He arrived onboard the USS Texas battleship.

Barack Obama's journey on Air Force 1 may not be quite that dramatic, but when he touches down on Cuban soil it will signify a new chapter in US-Cuban relations.

For Obama it's the culmination of a process which began with secret talks between the two countries two years ago.

With ten months left until he leave the White House it was natural that this was a visit he felt he had to make, and the images over the next 48 hours will be replayed in history as part of his legacy.

There will be a meeting with President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel (who, it's been made clear, the president will not be meeting), along with ceremonial duties such as the laying of a wreath at the memorial of Cuba's national hero Jose Marti, and the obligatory state banquet.

There will be also be more informal opportunities for Obama to enjoy himself, and potentially meet the Cuban public when he walks around Old Havana and visits the national baseball game for a game on Tuesday.

On the face of it Havana doesn't feel like it's changed that much, though one is starting to see subtle differences Credit: ITV News

Naturally given the history between the two countries there are potentially controversial moments to navigate.

Obama will meet with Cuban dissidents, long aggrieved at the continual detentions for human rights activists and repression of the Cuban people.Perhaps the most anticipated moment will come on Tuesday morning with his speech at the National Theatre in Havana, broadcast live on Cuban TV and eagerly anticipated by people here.

Walking around Havana the functional preparations are underway.

Pot-holes littering the city's streets are being filled in and there is round the clock work at the baseball stadium to get it ready for the President's visit.

They're not going as far as to drape the city in the US flag - things haven't changed that much - but it's clear an effort is being made to ensure the city is fit for purpose.

We came here a year ago for the first formal diplomatic talks between the two countries in over 50 years.

On the face of it Havana doesn't feel like it's changed that much, though one is starting to see subtle differences.

The biggest of these is the public wifi hot-spots which have opened around the city.

Olga Lilia Martinez and her son talk to their relatives in Texas Credit: ITV News

For roughly two dollars people can buy an Internet card that gives them an hour's use online.

One forgets how much we take such access for granted, but for people traveling in some cases 20 miles or more just to surf the web or use the Imo App to speak to their family this represents a huge and welcome change.

There is also the burgeoning group of entrepreneurs across Havana, empowered by a gradual loosening of restrictions by the Cuban government.

Change is coming but it is gradual.

Obama's visit will be broadly welcomed by the people of Cuba but there are still elements of distrust and trepidation that are hard to shake after 50 years of isolation.

The normalising of relations will bring increased opportunities to develop businesses and open new doors in communications, as well as an influx of tourist previously unable to visit to the island from America.

While seen as an economic positive, it also poses a threat to the culture and traditions of Cuban life.

Sandra Arias Betancourt of Sabet Real Estate, Havana's first estate agent Credit: ITV News

There are long-standing issues over the lifting of the trade embargo and the existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as discussions about compensation over an economic blockade that has had a crippling effect on the economy for decades.

Those issues will be discussed, but it's unlikely much progress will be made in the next two days, the re-establishing of relations is an ongoing process will continue for years to come.

The symbolism of this visit is what counts and one imagines the images broadcast around the world from here will leave nobody in any doubt that a new frontier of diplomacy has opened.

This week Havana also welcomes the first visit in nearly 20 years by a professional US baseball team (the Tampa Bay Rays), and on Friday it sees the Rolling Stones perform a free open air concert to thousands of adoring fans.

If ever there was a sign that times are changing in Cuba one only has to look at the week ahead in this city.