Barack Obama will be the second American president to visit Cuba during his term in office on March 20, 2016.
The only other American president to do that so far had been Calvin Coolidge, in 1928. James Carter visited Cuba but at a time when he was no longer the president, in 2002 and 2011.
It’s been 88 years since Coolidge visited Cuba. The United States has had 14 presidents between the 1928 visit and this new one.
Coolidge was the 30th president of the United States. He came into office in 1923, when he was vice president and had to replace late president Warren Harding, who passed away only two years after his election.
Coolidge held the post for 6 years, (1923-1929), and visited Cuba only a year before the end of his presidency. On April 27, 1927, Cuban President Gerardo Machado travelled to the United States to invite Coolidge to the 6th Pan-American Conference, that took place in January, 1928.
The last months of 1927 were agitated in Cuba. On December 1st, 1927 the members of the University Students Directorate, an organization opposing Machado, were expelled from the University of Havana and other higher education institutions. The university where the conference was going to be held was taken by the military, to guarantee that no displays of rebelliousness were made during the American president’s visit.
The 6th Pan-American Conference was held in Havana from January 26 through February 20th, 1928. A day before, President Coolidge arrived in the country with his wife. His policy of isolation from the rest of the world was such that his trip to Cuba was the only visit he made to another country in his six years in office.
In Cuba, elections were in preparation for the constitutional assembly that approved a new Constitution on May 20th, 1928, derogating the one from 1901. President Machado used Coolidge’s visit in benefit of his political campaign that led to his re-election on November 1st, 1928.
The only public speech Coolidge made during his visit was one at a session of the conference. He defended the U.S. position towards the Nicaragua of Augusto Cesar Sandino, and said that the American presence there was “simply to help them hold free elections.”
He also praised the situation in Cuba: “Thirty years ago, Cuba was a colony, torn by a revolution and devastated by constant clashes. Today Cuba is its own ruler. The Cuban people is independent, free and prosperous, a peaceful people benefiting from the benefits of governing themselves.”
In a report published in the Saturday Post in 1958, Beverly Smith wrote that the only incident of the visit was motivated by rum. The American president had to reject a Daiquiri cocktail that was presented to him on a tray. Immediately after that, and as if to mask his rudeness, he praised Cuba’s exuberant vegetation. It were the years of the Prohibition in the United States and it wouldn’t have been fine for him to accept that drink.
He died five years after his visit to Cuba.
American presidents in Guantanamo Bay
Other American presidents have set foot on another piece of Cuban territory: the Guantanamo Naval Base.
William H. Taft
The first American president to visit the Guantanamo Naval Base was William H. Taft in 1911. He travelled to the base to inspect the construction of the first facilities for the U.S. Navy. Before that, the only facilities at the base were the ones that Spain had built for its own fleet.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Roosevelt visited Guantanamo Bay in two occasions. Following one of his visits, he allocated a budget for renovation works. The base has started to play an important role as the center of operations of the Atlantic fleet, the main fleet of the U.S. Navy before World War II.
Roosevelt’s first visit was on February 20, 1939, on board of the Houston Cruise. He returned to Guantanamo two years later, on December 4, 1940, on board of the Tuscaloosa – which was later decorated with 6 stars for its service during World War II.
President Harry Truman (1945-1953) made a stopover at Guantanamo on his return from Puerto Rico, on board of the U.S.S. Williamsburg presidential yacht. His visit to Guantanamo was virtually a recreational visit, where he was welcomed by a group of children and the captain in charge of the base. He did not meet with Cuban officials, and left soon for his summer house in Key West. All there’s left of that visit is a couple of pictures.
A Cuban president?
In 113 years of U.S. occupation, only a Cuban president has set foot in Guantanamo Bay: Fulgencio Batista in 1954. Will a Cuban president ever set foot there again when the territory is returned to Cuba?