The Last Time a U.S. President Visited Cuba

Calvin Coolidge attended the Pan American Conference in Havana in January 1928.

President Coolidge and his wife, Grace Coolidge, are shown with the Cuban leader Gerardo Machado y Morales and his wife, Elvira Machado, in Havana on January 19, 1928.  (AP)

Updated on February 18 at 9:12 a.m.

President Obama announced on Twitter that he will visit Cuba next month “to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people.” The visit would cap the historic announcement by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 that the two Cold War-era rivals would take steps to normalize relations.

Obama would be the first sitting U.S. president—Jimmy Carter visited in 2011—to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge attended the Pan American Conference in Havana in January 1928.

It was a time when the U.S. controlled Cuban politics and the Cuban economy, according to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

U.S. policy toward Cuba during that period was governed by the Platt Amendment, which, in exchange for an end to the U.S. military occupation of the island, imposed a set of conditions on the Cuban government. These gave the U.S. the right to intervene unilaterally in Cuban affairs and included a clause that eventually led to the perpetual lease of Guantanamo Bay, which is home to a U.S. naval base and a detention facility for suspected terrorists.

“So embittered were most Latin American leaders over America's policies that the republics of the Western Hemisphere assembled for their triennial conference in Havana, Cuba, in 1928 eager to demand changes in American conduct,” the Miller Center notes.

It was under these circumstances that Coolidge visited Havana. The trip was the first foreign outing for the president, who was seemingly uninterested in foreign policy, and was an attempt to extend an olive branch toward a Latin America that was smarting at U.S. policy toward the region.

Coolidge rode the presidential railcar to Key West where he boarded the battleship USS Texas and set sail for Havana, where, as The New York Times’s account said, he was warmly welcomed. “[B]ig guns boomed salutes and a multitude of people cheered with the enthusiasm born of an intensive Latin nature,” the Times reported.

Prohibition was in effect in the U.S. at the time, and reporters accompanying Coolidge wanted to know how the president would respond to an offer of alcohol when he met with Gerardo Machado y Morales, the Cuban leader at the time.  Beverly Smith, a reporter writing in the Saturday Evening Post, recalled in 1958, that a waiter carried “a big tray of delicate, crystal cocktail glasses, each sparkling to the brim with a daiquiri—rum, fresh lime juice and sugar, well shaken.”

Cal himself, of course, was the cynosure of the drama. As the tray approached from his left, he wheeled artfully to the right, seeming to admire a portrait on the wall. The tray came closer. Mr. Coolidge wheeled right another 90 degrees, pointing out to Machado the beauties of the tropical verdure. By the time he completed his 360-degree turn, the incriminating tray had passed safely beyond him. Apparently he had never seen it. His maneuver was a masterpiece of evasive action.

That artfulness continued in the president’s address to the conference, in which he called Cuba a complete demonstration of the progress we are making” in the region.

“Thirty years ago Cuba ranked as a foreign possession, torn by revolution and devastated by hostile forces,” Coolidge said. “Such government as existed rested on military force. Today Cuba is her own sovereign. Her people are independent, free, prosperous, peaceful, and enjoying the advantages of self-government. The last important area has taken her place among the republics of the New World.”

The Miller Center notes that the conference was also notable for the remarks made by Charles Evans Hughes, Coolidge’s former secretary of state who served as the president’s special envoy. His “tour de force of a speech … persuaded the delegates to refrain from passing a strong anti-U.S. resolution,” the center notes.

Coolidge’s visit paved the way for a policy that opposed direct military intervention in Latin America. It reflected, in the words of the Miller Center, “a dawning awareness of the need for change, which would finally come when President Franklin Roosevelt announced a ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ of nonintervention in 1933.”

In 1959, a little more than three decades later, Fidel Castro and his communist rebels took power in Cuba. The U.S. severed diplomatic relations in 1961 and the next five decades were marked by acrimony. Coolidge still remains the only sitting president to visit the island.