HAVANA — In his historic visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama is relegating decades of American acrimony with the communist country further into the past and cementing a new relationship between the Cold War-era foes.
Obama’s arrival Sunday afternoon was eagerly anticipated in the capital, where workers were cleaning up Old Havana and giving buildings a fresh coat of paint. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colors in parts of the city, 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 U.S. shore were first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha. Several U.S. lawmakers, as well as business leaders eager to get a foothold in Cuba, were set to visit, too.
For Obama, the diplomatic opening is a centerpiece 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 U.S. 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 U.S. businesses are engaged there, the more that we have people traveling 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 en Espanol.
Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. The last visit was in 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge arrived in a battleship.
This is an incredible thing,” said Carlos Maza, a 48-year-old refrigerator repairman from Havana. “In almost 90 years no American president has come here to Cuba. It’s a big step forward.”
In a reminder of how tightly Cuban society is still controlled, the Castro government announced a virtual shutdown of Havana during Obama’s stay. Few Cubans expected to see him in person. Extensive closures of main boulevards were planned during the day, and the city’s seaside Malecon was largely deserted Sunday morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.
The president’s schedule for his 2½ day visit is jam-packed, including official meetings with Castro and an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Obama’s visit was about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island’s vibrant culture.
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 U.S. and Cuban officials that led to the normalization of diplomatic relations in December 2014.
A highlight of Obama’s visit comes 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.
Obama planned a speech at the Grand Theater of Havana laying out his vision for greater freedoms and more economic opportunity in Cuba.
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 cellphones, Internet and Cubans’ comfort with discussing their country’s problems in public, for example.
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.
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 will significant pledges from the government to address Washington’s human rights concerns.
Hours before Obama’s arrival, a small group of dissidents known as the Ladies in White group protested against the government outside a Havana church, in what’s become a weekly tradition. Angel Moya, who described himself as a former political prisoner and attended the demonstration, said he wanted to send Obama a message that “this is not the time for the president to visit Cuba.”
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 finalized an agreement Saturday to renovate and run three hotels on the island. Just before the trip, the U.S. gave San Francisco-based online lodging service Airbnb a special license allowing travelers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba.
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