Barack Obama arrives in Cuba for historic visit
Updated 21 March 2016, 16:35 AEDT
US President Barack Obama has arrived in Cuba for a historic three-day visit, the first by a serving US president to the communist country in 88 years.
- Barack Obama arrives in Cuba for three-day visit
- President expected to hold several meetings, attend baseball
- US-Cuba relations improving, but trade embargo likely to remain
Mr Obama flew into the Cuban capital Havana aboard Air Force One, accompanied by his family and a US business delegation, marking a stark difference from his predecessor Calvin Coolidge, who arrived on board an aircraft carrier in 1928.
The trip is the most visible demonstration of the President’s foreign policy principle of engaging with Cuba since his December 2014 announcement that the US would end a half-century long diplomatic freeze with its former Cold War foe.
Today, Mr Obama and the First Lady will take a walk around Old Havana, playing tourist in a country just 150 kilometres off the Florida coast which has long been closed to ordinary Americans.
The visit will also include a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution and a bilateral meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, although the US leader has stopped short of meeting the Cuban leader’s revolutionary brother, Fidel.
Mr Obama is expected to use a speech on Tuesday to directly address the Cuban people on issues including the promotion of democracy and human rights.
On the sidelines, Mr Obama is expected to meet privately with anti-Castro dissidents.
The Obama family will also find time to take in a game of baseball between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
(AFP: Adalberto Roque)
Minutes before Mr Obama took off for Cuba, police in Havana arrested dozens of people from a banned group demanding greater human rights.
The protesters were from the Ladies in White, formed by wives of former political prisoners. Police bundled them into vehicles outside a church where they attempt to hold protests almost every Sunday.
Republicans and some human rights activists have criticised Mr Obama for dealing with Mr Castro, given the lack of political, media and economic freedom in a country where the Communist Party retains tight control.
President’s visit a ‘legacy-booster’
The carefully choreographed visit will send an important message, according to Mavis Anderson, an activist with the Latin American Working Group in Washington DC.
“On the President’s side it’s a real legacy-booster for him,” she said.
“But on the side of good policy, it will help, we believe, to solidify the changes that the President has already made in policy, which remain vulnerable, both to the whims of another president or to obstacles put in place by Congress.
“So anything that is more concrete is going to help make these changes stick, and we feel that’s really important.
“On the Cuban side, it’s very important for them because I think it demonstrates the seriousness of the United States in really crafting a different path with Cuba.”
The White House had argued the US’s long-held policy of isolating the Castro regime was not working and was well beyond its expiration date.
The President’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Cuba’s political system did not change.
“The United States was isolated within our own hemisphere — and in the wider world — which disagreed with our approach,” he said.
“Most importantly, our policy was not making life better for the Cuban people — and in many ways, it was making it worse.”
Trade embargo roadblock remains, no guarantees in future
The Obama administration is now hoping engagement, rather than isolation, will bring about positive change. Already some is visible.
The US Government has relaxed travel restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba, will allow American companies to hire Cuban nationals, and has adjusted the banking system to process money from Cuba in the US.
Last week the first US direct mail was delivered to the island, including a letter from Mr Obama.
But the biggest roadblock to normal relations between Cuba and the US remains — a long-standing and crippling economic embargo.
The power to lift the embargo rests with the Republican-controlled US Congress.
With many Republicans and some Democrats vehemently opposed to giving any relief to the Cuban regime, Mr Obama has conceded the embargo is unlikely to be lifted during his remaining time in office.
There is no guarantee of further engagement under the next president, either.
Both the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Cuban-American challenger Ted Cruz are vociferously opposed to the Obama government’s policy shift.
While the embargo is key to restoring relations between the US and Cuba, Ms Anderson said other significant issues would need to be resolved as well.
“Cuba wants Guantanamo back, which they say the US is illegally occupying, so there are some big issues left,” she said.
“The US raises issues of free speech and detention of internal opposition, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.
“But they’re talking, and they’re respectful, and the President is going to go there to visit. This is a big deal.”