The American first family has arrived in Cuba to begin their historic trip of the communist nation.
Air Force One touched down in Havana – in the pouring rain – just before 4:30pm ET on Sunday for the visit the White House says will ‘deepen’ America’s relationship with the communist government following more than half a century of tension.
President Obama became the first sitting president in nearly 90 years to visit the island after he flew from Andrews Air Fore base with wife Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia and the First Lady’s mother, Marian Robinson.
The clouds opened just before the wheels hit the tarmac in Cuba’s capital, meaning the First Family had to disembark with umbrellas.
There was no sign of Cuban dictator Raul Castro as Obama arrived, with the country’s foreign minister sent to conduct the greetings and handshakes instead,
As they taxied towards their motorcade, Obama wrote on Twitter: ‘¿Que bolá Cuba? (What’s up Cuba?). Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.’
Cuban and American flags were flown from the president’s car as it left the airport in the direction of Havana’s old town, where he will be given a tour this evening.
The first family will now spend three days on the island. As they left, protesters marching against Cuba’s human rights record were arrested in Havana. The U.S. president will meet with Cuban dictator Raul Castro during his visit, as well as dissidents of the authoritarian government. He will also give a televised speech from Havana’s national theater, Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso.
The president’s spokesman on Friday said Obama will not shy away from using his ‘bully pulpit’ on the trip to address human rights violations in the communist country that the United States was estranged from for more than 50 years.
‘For more than 50 years, we tried a strategy of saying, well, why don’t we just try to ignore the Cubans and see if they change their mind on their own. Not surprisingly, that strategy didn’t really work very well, so we’re trying a new approach,’ White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday.
Earnest said: ‘The President of the United States is going to get on Air Force One, he’s going to fly to Havana, Cuba, and he is going to sit down with the leader of Cuba and say, you need to do a better job of protecting the human rights of your people.
‘He’s going to give a speech to the Cuban population, to the Cuban people, one that will be carried on TV, according to the Cuban government, where the President will advocate for better respect for human rights.
And while he’s in town the president will ‘visit with people who have previously been victimized by the government, and encourage them to continue to fight for the kinds of universal human rights that we deeply cherish in this country’.
‘That is effective advocacy for American values,’ Earnest added. ‘That is effective advocacy for the kinds of principles that we cherish in this country and in our government. And it is, by the way, an approach that is strongly supported by the vast majority of the Cuban people.’
The first day of the trip will see the entire first family, including Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, take a tour of Old Havana.
As part of their ‘cultural outreach’ they will stop by the Havana Cathedral to see Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The Cuban cardinal played a crucial role in the thawing of relations between the United States and his home country.
The first family’s visit to his church will ‘mark the important role of the Catholic Church in the lives of the Cuban people’, the White House said this week on a planning call, ‘and in the increasing relations’ between the two countries.
They will also greet staff at the recently reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba.
The U.S. operated out of the building during the detente between the U.S. and the Castro regime from 1977 until the summer of 2015, but it was under the authority of the Swiss government, which served as the protecting power.
It officially assumed the role of the United States’ mission in Cuba on July 20, 2015, when diplomatic ties were formally restored.
On Monday morning, the president will honor Cuban revolutionary José Marti, a hero in the Cuban revolt against Spain, by laying a wreath at his memorial, a 358ft tower, in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, before his meeting with Raul Castro.
The president will be ‘very candid about areas of disagreement’ at their meeting, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, ‘including the human rights practices that have concerned us in Cuba and our support for universal values in Cuba’.
Both presidents are expected to deliver statements after the meeting and the White House indicated on Friday that Obama would likely take questions from the Press, although a formal news conference has not been scheduled.
Obama will not meet with ex-Cuban dictator Fidel Castro while he is in town. The 1950s era Cuban revolutionary turned over power to his brother in 2006 temporarily for health reasons and made the transition permanent in 2008.
The 88-year-old has rarely been seen in public since handing over power, prompting rumors that he is in failing health. His last observed outing was in February.
‘Neither we nor the Cubans have pursued such a meeting,’ Rhodes said Wednesday.
Mrs Obama will meanwhile on Monday meet with female Cuban students, some of whom have studied in the U.S., as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, the White House said.
The president and first lady will participate in a State dinner hosted by the Cuban government at the Palace of the Revolution.
The following morning the president will give a speech, in which he will ‘review the complicated history’ between the countries, the White House says, ‘but also to look forward to the future, and to lay out his vision for how the United States and Cuban can work together, to how the Cuban people can continue to pursue a better life.’
Afterward he will meet with political dissidents before attending an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban National Team.
‘Americans and Cubans share a love of baseball, and this is yet another powerful reminder of the kinship between our peoples, as well as the progress we can achieve when we leverage those natural ties,’ the White House’s chief spokesman, Earnest, said Friday.
Obama’s meeting with opponents of the Cuban government has been especially kept under wraps going into the trip.
Earnest was unable to say today who the president will meet with specifically while he is there while promising Press a list at a later time and access when it happens.
Earnest said today that he had not seen the list but provided assurances that it had not been dictated by the Cuban government.
‘The list of people invited to meet with the president in Cuba is non-negotiable,’ he told reporters. ‘I would not be surprised if there might be people on that list that the Cuban government would prefer that we not meet with…and I don’t know whether or not they’ve raised those concerns or not.
‘But I can tell you that the President is going to move forward and host meetings, and have a conversation about human rights with the people that he chooses to meet with,’ Earnest said,
As observers have noted, it would be difficult for the president to meet with imprisoned dissidents without working with the Cuban government, though.
Not having reviewed the list, Earnest said he was unable to vouch for the status of the participants, ‘but we certainly are expecting the President to have the opportunity to meet with everybody who is invited and chooses to come.’
The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights last month said the number of dissident arrests had went up – not down – since the U.S. and Cuba announced on Dec. 17, 2014 that they would resume high-level diplomatic relations.
In January alone, 1,474 people were ‘arbitrarily’ detained, the human rights organization told Bloomberg Politics.
This week Cuba released seven dissidents and allowed them one trip abroad on the condition that when they return they will serve the remainder of their sentences out of prison and be banned from additional foreign travel.
‘It appears to be some kind of gift they want to present to Obama, but in reality it is nothing concrete because when we come back we will return to legal limbo,’ Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the prisoners, told Retuers.
Responding to criticisms of Obama’s trip on Friday, his spokesman said, ‘I would acknowledge that there are places where we haven’t seen nearly as much improvement as we would like, but there have been some places where we have started to see improvement in Cuba, and we certainly are going to go and press on those changes.’
And he said of Obama’s meeting with the dissidents, ‘I think the symbolism of the President sitting down with them in their home country and showing support for their cause will be a really powerful thing I think both in real terms but symbolically as well.’
Obama is the only U.S. president aside from Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba while in office. He and Castro had a formal meeting last April at the Summit of the Americas Conference but that was in Panama.
The visit to Cuba by Obama follows an agreement between the countries more than a year ago to begin normalizing relations, and ‘it signals a new beginning’ between the two countries, acting U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis told reporters Wednesday.
The Cuban government says that cannot happen until a U.S. embargo banning trade and tourism is lifted on the country and the foreign government returns Guantanamo Bay. U.S. officials have steadfastly said it cannot have the land occupied by naval base and prison back.
Accompanying Obama on the trip are Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet.
A delegations of more than 30 lawmakers – mostly Democrats but some Republicans – will join them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be on the trip, a Democratic aide confirmed. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will not.
House Republicans making the 90-mile trip south of the U.S. are Minnesota’s Tom Emmer, South Carolina’s Mark Sanford and Wisconsin’s Reid Ribble.
Speaker Paul Ryan chided Obama this week for making the trip in spite of the Castro regime’s egregious record of human rights abuses.
‘To this day, it is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and fugitives. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the president will bring up the need for reform during his visit,’ Ryan charged.
Rather, he will announce ‘new commercial deals between U.S. companies and the Cuban regime—deals that will legitimize and strengthen the communist government,’ the leading Republican congressman said.
Ryan reiterated Republican opposition to lifting the 1959 trade embargo on Cuba, and said ‘despite the president’s attempts to undermine’ it with his executive actions, ‘he is ultimately bound by it. It is the law of the land.’
Tuesday the president will attend a round table with Cuban-American business leaders, U.S. government officials and Cuban entrepreneurs.that the White House says will be focus on ‘opportunity for the Cuban people.’
‘This is a sector of the Cuban economy and society that holds enormous promise in improving the livelihoods of the Cuban people,’ Rhodes told reporters Wednesday.
‘And more broadly, the commercial opening between our countries similarly has the potential to be a truly mutual interest in terms of providing opportunities – not just for U.S. businesses, but opportunities that again help empower and improve the lives of Cubans.’
Ahead of Obama’s visit the United States Treasury Department eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, ending a requirement that Americans visiting for educational purposes go in groups.
Tourist travel will still be illegal – only Congress can lift that ban – but the government will now use the ‘honor code’ to regulate approved travel, making it much easier for Americans to travel to the country for any purpose.
The new rules will also allow Cubans to open accounts at U.S. banks and financial institutions to process American money coming out of Cuba.
It will further rescind a 10 percent charge on converting U.S. dollars to Cuban convertible pesos and allow mail, cargo and transportation companies to have direct presences in the communist country.
Creidt: Daily Mail & Reuters