First U.S. Presidential Visit to Cuba in 80-Plus Years

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When Air Force One touched down in Cuba on March 20, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit that country in more than 80 years, helping to bridge a political gap that has been far wider than the roughly 90 miles (145 km) that separate the United States and Cuba. Obama’s visit is the culmination of the incremental warming of the adversarial relationship between the two countries that the president believed had outlived the Cold War era in which it had developed. A handshake between Obama and Cuban Pres. Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 marked the symbolic start of a rapprochement that grew to include the reinstatement of official diplomatic relations (severed for more than five decades), the reopening of embassies in Washington, D.C., and Havana, and the loosening of travel and economic restrictions.

However, a huge hurdle remains to the resumption of full engagement between the two countries: the U.S. economic embargo, established as policy through executive action by Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1962 and codified in U.S. law through congressional adoption in 1996 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (better known as the Helms-Burton Act). That act puts removal of the embargo beyond the reach of executive action by Obama and in the hands of a Congress controlled by Republicans who are in no hurry to alter the status quo. Indeed, when Obama’s trip to Cuba was announced in February, it was roundly condemned by the majority of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Calvin Coolidge, who traveled aboard the battleship USS Texas to address the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States in Havana on January 16, 1928, was the last sitting U.S. president before Obama to visit Cuba. It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that former president Jimmy Carter made historic trips to Cuba in 2002 and 2011 that arguably helped pave the way for Obama’s initiatives. In addition to addressing the Cuban people in Spanish on television in 2002, Carter joined Cuban leader Fidel Castro in throwing out the first pitch at a Cuban all-star baseball game.

Not to be outdone, on March 22 Obama was scheduled to attend an exhibition game between a Cuban all-star team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays (following in the steps of the Baltimore Orioles, who played a game in Cuba in 1999). The charismatic U.S. president and the ball players would not be the only stars set to shine in Cuba that week, however, as the storied British rock band the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform a free concert in Havana on March 25.

Obama was accompanied to Cuba by First Lady Michelle Obama, their daughters, Sasha and Malia, as well as the president’s mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. His itinerary included a tour of Old Havana, meetings with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and President Raúl Castro (though not with Fidel Castro), a visit to the José Martí memorial, a state dinner, and an address to the Cuban people at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.

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