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Big week ahead in Havana with historic Obama visit

Big week ahead in Havana with historic Obama visit

The city has been cleaned and spiffed up
The Tampa Bay Rays will play Cuban team on Tuesday
The week finishes with a Rolling Stones concert

BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
mwhitefield@miamiherald.com

HAVANA
There are unprecedented sights and sounds around Havana: fleets of
burgundy-colored Jeeps carrying U.S. security teams; huge U.S. Air Force
C17 transport planes sitting on the tarmac at José Martí International
Airport; 18-wheelers sporting Pennsylvania and Florida plates parked
outside the freshly painted Latinoamericano Stadium — and lots of U.S.
officials moving around town.

Signs of President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Cuba, which starts
Sunday, are everywhere.

Visitors have been evicted from their hotels to make way not just for
the presidential visit but for Major League Baseball: The Tampa Bay Rays
have hit the practice field to prepare for their game against the Cuban
national team on Tuesday.

To cap off the wild week, the Rolling Stones will play a Good Friday
concert at a Havana sports complex. The free performance is expected to
draw upwards of 500,000 Cubans and sends a message that change is in the
air.

Obama’s visit — the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin
Coolidge came by in 1928 — caps off a policy of rapprochement with Cuba
that began on Dec. 17, 2014, when the two countries announced they had
begun to work on normalized relations and put past differences behind them.

To get ready for the president, the streets along his route from the
airport have been swept and cleaned. The iconic seaside Malecón highway
has been resurfaced and striped as has Paseo del Prado, where the
president will pass en route to give a speech Tuesday — to be broadcast
all over the island — from the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso.

Homes have been repainted by the government in neighborhoods such as
Vedado and Boyeros, which the Obama motorcade will drive by. In the past
few weeks, dozens of new street lights have gone up along the Malecón.

The stadium where the Tampa Bay Rays will play the Cuban national team
on Tuesday, with the president in attendance, has been painted a bright
royal blue and undergone extensive renovation. On Saturday, groups of
young dancers and gymnasts and security brigades were rehearsing for the
big day. Groups with MLB credentials on their necks filed in and out of
the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, MLB headquarters for the week.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S VISIT IS VERY IMPORTANT AND I HOPE GOOD THINGS COME OF
IT. IT’S ABOUT BUILDING BRIDGES AND STOPPING THE HATE AND REVENGE.
Ileana Yarza, who has been writing President Obama for years

Ileana Yarza, a retired economist and art dealer, has become a celebrity
of sorts. She started to write Obama when he was still a presidential
candidate, asking him to lift the embargo. Yarza has received various
responses over the years. But when the president wrote her a letter and
put it on the first direct-mail flight from the United States to Cuba on
Wednesday, the media suddenly beat a path to her door.

When the letter from the White House, stamped USA-Cuba direct, arrived
at her Vedado home Thursday, she said she waited until her children
arrived before she opened it.

She has invited the president to have coffee with her, but doesn’t know
if he’ll have time on this trip.

“President Obama’s visit is very important and I hope good things come
of it,” she said. “It’s about building bridges and stopping the hate and
revenge.”

Cubans joke that Delegado Obama is coming to visit: They’re accustomed
to appealing to their local delegates to the National Assembly of
People’s Power when something needs to be repaired or spruced up in
their neighborhoods. They often wait a long time.

But Delegado Obama is very effective at getting things done. “People are
saying they wish he would come once a month and visit other
neighborhoods as well,” said Carlos Calderón, a retired merchant marine.
“Can you imagine what this place would look like?”

Calderón’s building in Vedado was one that got a fresh coat of paint. “I
say ‘Thank you, brother Obama,’” he said. On a more serious note, he
said, that “Cubans are putting a lot of hope into this visit that things
will change, that the embargo will be lifted.”

Originally the Rolling Stones concert, which has been in the works since
December, was scheduled Sunday night, the day that Obama arrives. But
the Cuban government asked the Stones organization to change the dates,
said Dale Skjerseth, the band’s production manager.

After Obama’s trip was announced, the Rolling Stones had hoped he might
be able to attend.

But now, Skjerseth quipped, “he’s our opening act.”

“HE’S OUR OPENING ACT.”
Dale Skjerseth, Rolling Stones production manager, about President Obama

There’s scarcely a hotel room to be found in Havana this week between
Major League Baseball — which requested 400 rooms for executives, ball
players and sports writers — and the presidential visit. Some guests
have been relocated to hotels outside the city to make way for official
delegations and journalists.

Nearly 200 American journalists have applied for credentials, but media
outlets from around the world also consider the Obama visit big news.

Some Cubans can’t decide whether they’re more excited about the
presidential visit or the Stones concert.

Yuniesky González Bernal, an electrical engineer, was in London in 1966
when he saw the Stones play. He was there after winning a prize that
allowed him to visit England at age 22. He never forgot the experience.

“Of course I’m going. I’ll be one of the first to arrive. This place is
going to fill up fast,” he said Saturday as he lounged against a fence
watching the stage preparations.

The stage has come from Belgium, on 61 sea containers packed with
lighting, towers and video screens. A 747 aircraft from Mexico City
landed Friday night with the final load of equipment.

The Stones wound up a Latin American tour in Mexico City Friday night.
But Skjerseth said the group wants their Cuba concert to be everything
they offered in Latin America and more.

The Stones performance will be the first rock concert ever by a British
group in Cuba, where during the 1960s and ’70s rock was prohibited and
teenagers listened to it secretly in their rooms.

Now rock is an open and popular genre.

“The Rolling Stones like to be first in everything. They set standards,”
Skjerseth said. For their Cuba concert, the Stones have decided to pull
out all the stops, he said. “I believe you’ll never see a show like this
again.”

Juan Carlos Pedroso, who was watching the concert stage preparations,
said he wouldn’t be attending because he doesn’t like big crowds.
“That’s not my style, but I like the music and I’ll be watching at
home,” he said.

He said he’ll also be watching Obama’s Tuesday speech. “Certainly,” he
said, “It’s very important.”

Asked if Obama was popular in Cuba, he shrugged his shoulders.

“Let me put it this way. It would be hard for him not to be popular in
Cuba.”

Source: Big week ahead in Havana with historic Obama visit | Miami
Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article67115642.html

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