HAVANA – Barack Obama will be on a whirlwind tour of Havana hot spots in the next few days. But one place not on his itinerary is Cretin’s Corner, an art space where former U.S. presidents are lampooned.
Located in the Museum of the Revolution, the display depicts a small handful of past U.S. leaders in less than flattering caricatures. Obama, however, is notably not among them.
There are no studies about how popular Obama is in Cuba, where media is run by the state. But it is hard to find many detractors.
The caricature display, which is in the museum filled with the Castro brothers’ vintage memorabilia, typifies this.
The venue is almost an obligatory stop for tourists familiar with Cuba’s 1959 revolution, which ultimately saw the Caribbean nation join the communist bloc — the only country in the Americas to do so.
The Rogues’ Gallery is meant to take a few swipes at the likes of hard-line Cold Warriors Ronald Reagan who is portrayed as a cowboy and George Bush, decked out in clothes to look like a Roman emperor.
It also depicts George W. Bush — long a popular target of Cuban criticism — in a Nazi helmet and with donkey ears.
Signs explaining the meaning of the exhibit in English, French and Spanish say that these ex-presidents were all rogues who ultimately strengthened Cuba’s revolution and made socialism “irrevocable.”
The cartoonish, larger-than-life images often make visitors a little uncomfortable, bringing on a bit of nervous laughter.
During such moments, young Cuban guide Christopher quickly breaks the tension.
“It’s all caricature. And it’s just for fun,” he stresses.
So why is there no Obama image?
“I get asked about Obama all the time,” said Christopher. “But we see Obama as a president who has improved relations. We just don’t see him as any sort of rogue.”
On a three-day landmark visit — the first by a sitting U.S. president in almost 90 years — Obama will likely help change the image of the United States that several generations of Cubans have had since 1959.
U.S. sanctions for a half century have hurt Cubans and Americans, who are still not allowed to travel as normal tourists or do business freely.
The last U.S. president to visit Havana while in office was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Bob Johnson, a U.S. doctor who is 59, also laughed out loud when he saw Reagan and the Bushes painted as rogues.
“Obama would be different if he had been president in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s when all that was going on,” he said, referring to the tenser Cold War years. But “our country has changed, and he represents a lot of the changes that have taken place.”
Johnson may look like the average, everyday sightseer, wearing shorts and a hat and with a camera around his neck, but technically he is still not allowed to visit Cuba as a simple U.S. tourist.
Instead, he had to officially sign up on a photographic tour to qualify under one of the exceptions which allow Americans to visit.
“Obama is popular here. But so are Americans here, more so than in other parts of the world,” Johnson added.
After the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations in December 2014, tourism increased by 18 percent in 2015 and visits by Americans were up 77 percent.
“I certainly hope that Cubans don’t see Obama as a rogue,” said Elerida Bengtsson, a teacher visiting from Norway. “For me he is not. He is absolutely different” from the Bushes and Reagan, she said.
Not far from the museum, at a spot in a park where mostly older Cubans gather to argue about baseball, some indicated that decades of anti-Americanism won’t wash away in a snap.
“We will listen to Obama. We will be respectful. But he should be on his side, and we should be on our side,” quipped Rolando Verdecia, 89, a former boxer.
Caridad Amador, 62, is a pharmacologist and said she is at a loss as to why he would come with comprehensive U.S. sanctions still in place.
“Why is he here? What is he here to do?” she asked. “I don’t agree with him coming, with all due respect. And I think he’s daft.”