President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba comes with all the trappings of an official visit. There’s the meeting with a country’s leader (President Raúl Castro), a friendly chat with a high-ranking religious official (Cardinal Jaime Ortega), a photo op at a historic location (historic Havana) and even a state dinner.
But for the White House, the really important work of the trip, which began as Air Force One landed in Havana on Sunday, will take place in between, in those moments when Obama has a chance to interact with everyday Cubans.
This is a country where the media is strictly controlled by the government. So when Obama meets with a select group of Cuban entrepreneurs, talks with human rights activists and gives a broad address to the Cuban people, he’ll have a rare opportunity to send his message directly to the country’s citizens.
“We see this speech as a unique moment obviously in the history between our countries,” Senior Advisor Ben Rhodes said ahead of the trip. “This is the first visit of a U.S. President in nearly 90 years, certainly the first speech given by a President on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years and an opportunity for the President to engage the Cuban people with his vision for the future.”
The Cuba trip is also aimed at an audience back home. The rapprochement has only just begun, but many Republicans hope to delay or even reverse it, and there is little support in Congress for ending the Cuban embargo, which dates back to the 1960s.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week that the embargo remains the law despite Obama’s executive actions on Cuba. (Current GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who is supportive of re-establishing relations, nonetheless said at the last debate that he would close the embassy until a better deal could be made.)
“Part of the reason for going on the trip and for going on the trip earlier in the year is to utilize it to accelerate the process of normalization, to speak directly to the Cuban people about what the President’s vision for normalization is, and to continue to create openings for greater engagement between the American and Cuban people,” Rhodes said.
The First Family has a full schedule in Cuba, which kicks off a weeklong trip to Latin America. After landing on Sunday afternoon, they’ll tour Old Havana and meet with Cardinal Ortega, a Catholic leader who worked with Pope Francis on the effort to bring the two countries to the negotiating table.
On Monday, the president will attend a bilateral meeting with President Raúl Castro to discuss the normalization process and strife in Colombia. Later that evening, the Obamas will attend a state dinner.
Before leaving the country, Obama will watch a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.