Cubans seeking opportunities put their faith in “Saint Obama”

Havana preparing for a visit by US president, a Rolling Stones concert and a baseball match

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A group of Cubans playing domino on a Havana street.

“Everything is going really fast. I think Obama is going to like it,” says Álvaro Rivero, a 17-year-old who is studying to work in a body shop and has dreams of owning his own auto repair business in the Cuba of the future.

Last weekend, Rivero was passing the time watching around 100 construction workers race to fix up Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium. Sitting on a blue bench, he observed workers as they put the finishing touches on the playing field that is scheduled to host a historic game on Tuesday between a US major league baseball team and the famous Cuban-based Industriales ballclub.

“This is going to be the biggest thing in life,” exclaimed Rivero, who is a fan of both Industriales and of Major League Baseball.

Owners of private businesses stand to gain considerably from Obama’s visit and everything it leaves in its wake

US President Obama is sponsoring the March 22 match in Havana, symbolizing a whole new era in relations between two nations that spent half a century at loggerheads with one another.

In fact, some Havana residents, including young Rivero, are already calling the US leader Saint Obama. Even a Cuban journalist used the nickname in a headline for a story on the refurbishment work underway around the stadium.

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Photo gallery: Cuba prepares for Obama’s visit (Spanish captions). REUTERS

“It’s not just the stadium; they’ve repaved the roads, painted the building fronts, fixed the street lamps... Let’s hope our colleague Obama returns again,” noted Reina, a 50-year-old Cuban who was standing in the park across from the stadium. Authorities have set up a Wi-Fi hotspot here, enabling Reina and other Cubans to communicate with relatives in Miami via the internet – another cause for celebration.

There are great expectations inside and outside Cuba for Obama’s trip, which takes place 78 years after a visit by Calvin Coolidge, the last US sitting president to step on the island.

Havana hotels have been booked solid for days by thousands of journalists, security teams, delegation members and aides to the presidential trip, and that is without even mentioning the preparations for the Rolling Stones concert scheduled for March 25.

No vacancies

The entire Meliá Habana Hotel (397 rooms) has been reserved for the US delegation, while 300 out of the 462 rooms at the landmark Meliá Cohiba have been set aside for the Tampa Bay Rays and the American press that will follow the historic baseball game.

“More than 2,000 tourists from all over the world have had to be relocated in Varadero in order to make space in Havana,” complained a worker for the Cubatur travel agency. Nor are there any vacancies left at the 10,000 or so private homes in Havana that rent out rooms.

“We are overwhelmed. And it’s going to stay that way after the visit,” said a producer involved in three other major events about to take place in the city: the Rolling Stones concert – which requires 62 containers’ worth of equipment and will attract 20,000 fans – the shoot of part eight of Fast and Furious, involving more than 1,000 people; and a Chanel fashion show on May 3.

Last year, over 140,000 US citizens visited the island, while tourism in general grew 17% to hit the record figure of 3,500,000 visitors

“Before this, nobody wanted to come, and now people are fighting to be here,” said one diplomat, who reports having see the list of performers that a major company is planning to bring to Cuba – including Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Guns N’ Roses.

It’s not that Obama has performed any miracles. But ever since he and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced a thaw in bilateral relations on December 17, 2014 the island nation has been in the global spotlight and become a fashionable destination.

A flow of famous faces

Since then, there has been a constant flow of world leaders in Havana, ranging from French President François Hollande to Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Entertainment celebrities Beyoncé, Mick Jagger, Katy Perry and Paris Hilton were all here, as was the singer Usher, who got married in 2015 at the renowned privately run restaurant La Guarida.

Although most of the population does not live in the dollar area and locals do not feel that their lives are going to improve, owners of private businesses stand to gain considerably from Obama’s visit and everything it leaves in its wake.

Last year, more than 140,000 US citizens visited the island, while tourism in general grew 17% to hit the record figure of 3,500,000 visitors. And after Saint Obama’s visit, these figures are expected to soar even higher.

English version by Susana Urra.

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