The last sitting US President to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge, who arrived on a US battleship in 1928, to be greeted by a Cuban artillery salute. When Air Force One touched down at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Sunday, the welcome extended to Barack Obama was rather less spectacular, but no less warm. As he met with the staff of the new US Embassy in the Cuban capital, Mr Obama describe his three-day trip as “a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”
The re-establishment of relations with Cuba is one of Mr Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishments, and the visit is timed to strengthen those ties ahead of the results of the US presidential election in November. As if to emphasise his personal stake in US-Cuban partnership, he is being accompanied by his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha.
The Obama family began their visit to the island nation with a tour of Old Havana on Sunday afternoon, sightseeing on foot despite heavy rain.
Several hundred people greeted them with applause and shouts of “Obama” in the square outside Havana’s Cathedral, where Mr Obama met with Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega. Cardinal Ortega, along with Pope Francis, was instrumental in brokering the recent rapprochement between the two historic foes.
In December 2014, after 18 months of secret talks, Mr Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the two nations would at last begin normalising relations for the first time since Cuba’s Communist revolution in 1959. The countries have since re-opened embassies in Washington and Havana, while US airlines are due to resume services to Cuba this year. On Tuesday, Mr Obama will also attend a baseball game between the Cuban national team and US major league team the Tampa Bay Rays, a symbol of the two countries’ potential cultural links.
Mr Obama announced his arrival on Twitter:
Republicans in Congress remain opposed to reconciliation, and have so far refused to end Cuba’s 54-year economic embargo. There are five Republicans among a delegation of almost 40 members of Congress travelling with Mr Obama as part of the US delegation. Their arrival was a source of great excitement, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering alongside the Cuban flag in some areas of the spruced up capital – an unlikely sight given the decades of distrust between the nations.
Mr Castro was not at the airport to greet Mr Obama personally yesterday, but the two are due to meet for talks on Monday before a state dinner. On Tuesday, Mr Obama will give a speech in Havana outlining his hopes for future US-Cuban relations, which US officials expect to be broadcast live across the island nation. The venue for the President’s speech is the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, the same theatre where Coolidge addressed the Pan-American Conference 88 years ago.
Afterwards, Mr Obama is expected to meet with Cuban dissidents. On Sunday morning, before he landed in Havana, police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the activist group Ladies in White, who protest regularly every Sunday in the capital and are routinely detained.
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