Cubans welcome Presidente Obama for historic visit

HAVANA, Cuba — Yuri Gallardo, a 35-year-old taxi driver, who also rents out homes to tourists here, said Sunday it is about time relations between the United States and his home country improve. "Relationships between countries in the 21st century shouldn't be this way — there's no reason for this political and economic situation," Gallardo said.

Gallardo is among many of the 11 million Cubans who anxiously awaited the arrival of President Barack Obama on Air Force One to the island nation, marking the first time a U.S. president has set foot here since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 who came by a Navy battleship. Obama touched down in Havana after 4 p.m. ET Sunday, welcomed by a light rain.


US President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha, arrives at the Jose Marti international airport in Havana, Cuba March 20, 2016.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
US President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha, arrives at the Jose Marti international airport in Havana, Cuba March 20, 2016.

Gallardo said his income has risen sharply in the wake of an increase in tourism since December 17th, 2014, when the two countries announced they would reestablish diplomatic relations. He expects it will rise even further, because he expects even more tourists in the future. "Cuba can be the most important tourist spot in the Antilles, in the next 15 years."

Indeed, Obama's entourage includes some U.S. CEOs, including the head of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson, who will be here to discuss business partnerships.

The influence of a growing private sector is already evident in Cuba. Fernando Moncote is a farmer who is now allowed to grow and sell vegetables for himself rather than handing them over to the state for distribution.


"This is a historical moment," he said of Obama's visit. There is growing demand for his vegetables from the private sector restaurants. He supplies vegetables to one of the more famous restaurants, El Cocinero, which called him earlier this week to tell him that Obama would be eating there during his stay. "We are happy to make that harvest here, and in some way interacting (by) being part of history through food for the presidential visit," said Moncote.

Two elderly ladies Sunday morning attending Iglesia de Santa Rita de Casia, a Catholic church in the Miramar neighborhood of the city, said they were very enthusiastic about Obama's arrival. "The Cuban people have suffered tremendously from the separation of the last 50 years," said one of the ladies. They did not want to give their names. President Obama and his delegation are scheduled to attend a concert at Santa Rita on Monday night.

On Sunday night, Obama is scheduled to tour Old Havana and meet with Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the archbishop of Havana who helped in the process to normalize relations between the two countries.

A billboard featuring Cuban President Raul Castro and Barack Obama, in Havana Cuba.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
A billboard featuring Cuban President Raul Castro and Barack Obama, in Havana Cuba.

Prior to the president's arrival, the city was noticeably cleaner than in past, buildings along the malecon by the waterfront are freshly painted, roads paved, with street lanes painted on those refurbished roads. Near the national capitol building, or El Capitolio, freshly planted flowers bloom, and water trucks spray down the roads to clean them. At the baseball stadium in the center of the city, workers were seen Sunday slapping on one last coat of blue paint before Tuesday's big game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

Before Air Force One touched down, police began lining nearly every intersection coming into Havana. Metal detectors were being set up at entry points to the city.

—By CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Follow her on Twitter: @MCaruso_Cabrera