Cubans clean a street near the Great Havana Theater in Havana on Saturday. President Obama will begin an official visit to Cuba on Sunday.(Rolando Pujol / European Pressphoto Agency)
Cuba is preparing for a Category Five storm. Locals are calling it Hurricane Obama.
When President Obama touches down Sunday night in Havana — the first American leader to visit in nearly 90 years – he will find freshly paved streets and hotels that have been cleared of tourists to make room for his entourage.
Along with members of Congress, business leaders, and a Major League Baseball team, up to 1,200 journalists from around the world are descending on the Caribbean island, overwhelming officials at the Cuban press center who still fashion media credentials by hand.
Tourists who had reservations at the city’s top hotels were recently relocated — abruptly —to the beachside resort town of Varadero. Want a reservation at one of Havana’s hot new restaurants or a seat at a bar? Good luck.
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If the presidential fervor weren’t enough stress on Cuba’s aging infrastructure and relatively small tourism sector, consider the other minor events taking place here in coming days. Like a much-anticipated baseball game Tuesday featuring the Tampa Bay Rays, and a free concert Friday by Mick Jagger.
Cubans and visitors alike have been scrambling for tickets to see the Rays face off against an all-star Cuban team, a major event in this baseball-crazed country.
They won’t need tickets for the Rolling Stones show Friday night, but officials are worried about how many people might show up. Concert organizers, who added the concert at the last minute as the surprise last stop on the band’s Latin America tour, are setting up massive screens outside the concert venue and have told some local organizers that they hope for a crowd of 1 million.
“Who came up with this idea?” joked Josue Lopez, a Cuban photographer who works with visiting film producers and journalists. Typically, Lopez has a single client at a time. This week he has eight.
He and others responsible for ferrying around visitors are worried about logistics. There are rumors that several main thoroughfares will be shut down during Obama’s visit, which ends Tuesday. And much of Old Havana, a picturesque district dominated by pre-Colonial architecture, may be blocked when Obama embarks on a walking tour of the area Sunday.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Lopez said. “So nobody knows what to do.”
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While those responsible for organizing and documenting one of the most significant news stories of the year may be beset with a growing panic, most Cubans are greeting the occasion with excitement, saying the week’s events are more signs that this long-isolated island is finally being included in the rest of the world.
Some sense opportunity.
Outside Parque Central, a large hotel that brought in several generators to help power the media center set up on the second floor, taxi driver Jorge Perez offered passing journalists a discounted rate for a ride in his cherry red 1951 Chevy convertible.
He disagreed with the characterization of Obama’s visit as a storm.
“A hurricane is something that brings destruction,” Perez said. “This is such a big deal for us, politically and economically. It’s a moment filled with hope.”