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Obama aims to end decades of hostility with historic visit to Cuba

It’s the first time a US president has visited the Communist country in almost 90 years.

Barack and Michelle Obama boarding Air Force One today.
Barack and Michelle Obama boarding Air Force One today.
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

US PRESIDENT BARACK Obama is aiming to end decades of American acrimony with Cuba in a historic visit to the communist country.

Obama arrived in Havana earlier today, the first time a US president has made the trip in almost 90 years.

American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colours in parts of the capital , creating an improbable image for those who have lived through a half-century of bitterness between the two countries.

Joining the president for the short flight to the island just 90 miles off the US shore were first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha. Nearly 40 US lawmakers, as well as almost a dozen business leaders eager to get a foothold in Cuba, made the trip too.

For Obama, the diplomatic opening is a centrepiece of his foreign policy legacy and the fulfillment of his pledge to engage directly with longtime American enemies.

Persistent differences remain, including Havana’s frustration with the US economic embargo and Washington’s condemnation of Cuba’s human rights record. But the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since Obama and President Raul Castro restored ties.

“The more that US businesses are engaged there, the more that we have people travelling there, the more Cuban-Americans are able to interact with family members that in some cases they haven’t seen in decades, the more likely we are to see the kind of changes that all of us are hoping for,” Obama said in an interview with CNN.

Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge arrived in a battleship.

“This is an incredible thing,” Carlos Maza, a 48-year-old refrigerator repairman from Havana said.

In almost 90 years no American president has come here to Cuba. It’s a big step forward.

Many Cubans were staying home in order to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards. By early afternoon the Cuban government didn’t appear to be calling out crowds of supporters to welcome Obama, as it has with other visiting dignitaries. The city’s seaside Malecon promenade was largely deserted this morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

The president’s schedule for his two-and-a-half day visit is jam-packed, including official meetings with Castro and an event with US and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Obama’s visit is about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island’s vibrant culture.

“I don’t think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture,” Gustavo Machin, Cuba’s deputy director of United States affairs, told The Associated Press.

We don’t fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people.

Shortly after arriving, the Obama family was to tour Old Havana, including the Havana Cathedral, with a greeting from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who helped facilitate months of secret talks between US and Cuban officials that led to the normalisation of diplomatic relations in December 2014.

A highlight of Obama’s visit will come on Tuesday when he joins Castro and a crowd of baseball-crazed Cubans for a game between the beloved national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Economic and social reforms 

Two years after taking power in 2008, Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society. The changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to work in the private sector and have relaxed limits on mobile phones, internet and Cubans’ comfort with discussing their country’s problems in public, for example.

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The Cuban government has been unyielding, however, on making changes to its single-party political system and to the strict limits on media, public speech, assembly and dissent.

castro Cuban President Raul Castro Source: Desmond Boylan/AP/Press Association Images

Obama intended to talk with Cuban dissidents, a meeting the White House said was a prerequisite for the visit. But there were no expectations that he would leave Cuba with significant pledges from the government to address Washington’s human rights concerns.

Hours before Obama’s arrival, counterprotesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, with government backers shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. The women were taken into custody by female police officers and loaded onto buses. They’re typically detained briefly and then released, in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday.

A major focus for Obama was pushing his Cuba policy to the point where it will be all but impossible for the next American president to reverse it.

That includes highlighting new business deals by American companies, including Starwood, which finalised an agreement yesterday to renovate and run three hotels on the island. Just before the trip, the US gave San Francisco-based online lodging service Airbnb a special licence allowing travellers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba.

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