‘This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity,’ President Obama says in Cuba
Fans jump to their feet as Cuba’s first batter hits a single against the Tampa Rays during an exhibition game at Estadio Latinoamericano.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Tampa Rays players carry Cuban children during opening ceremonies at an exhibition baseball game between wiith the Cuban National Team.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Rays center fielder Mikie Mahtook chuckles as a dove flies overhead during an exhibition game between Tampa and the Cuban National Team.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Cuba National Team members wait for opening ceremonies to begin moments before an exhibition game against the Tampa Rays at Estadio Latinoamericano.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Onlookers crane to shoot smartphone images of President Obama, who is stationed more than a block away at the El Gran Teatro de Havana in Central Havana.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Cubans wave to President Obama as he passes through central Havana.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
President Obama meets with dissidents and other Cubans at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. From left are Nelson Alvarez Matute, Miriam Celaya Gonzalez and Manuel Cuesta Morua.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
Maria Castro, left, and Laritza Mojenas cheer for President Obama from the front door of a Havana home.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Angel Tapia, 72, right, watches President Obama’s speech.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
President Obama delivers a speech at the Gran Teatro de la Habana in Havana.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
Cuba President Raul Castro, bottom center, receives applause after arriving to hear President Obama’s address at the El Gran Teatro of Havana.(Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency)
Cuban President Raul Castro lifts up the arm of President Barack Obama at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Cristina Vareaes, right, and friend Mercedes Lopez, watch President Barack Obama answer questions at a news conference with Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana on Monday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Military school students watch the Cuba National baseball team practice at the Estadio Latinoamericano. The Cuban team will play the Tampa Rays in an exhibition game.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A statue of a famous Cuban baseball fan, Armando Luis Torres Torres, sits in the lower level seats along the third base line at Estadio Latinoamericano. President Obama is scheduled to watch a game in the stadium.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
President Barack Obama, along with his daughter, waves to well wishers as he tours Old Havana with his family soon after touching down on Air Force One, becoming the first sitting President since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
People wait in Central Havana to get a glimpse of President Obama.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as First Lady Michelle Obama looks on upon arrival at the airport in Havana on Sunday.(Ismael Francisco / Associated Press)
President Barack Obama waves after his arrival at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Sunday.(Alejandro Ernesto / European Pressphoto Agency)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive Sunday at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Air Force One.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
The plane carrying President Obama lands in Havana on Sunday.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists stand next to a sign showing President Obama, right, and Cuba President Raul Castro next to the Cathedral in Old Havana.(Enric Mart / Associated Press)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave as they board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C. to travel to Cuba.(Martin H. Simon / European Pressphoto Agency)
A house in Havana displays the flags of the United States and Cuba.(Orlando Barria / European Pressphoto Agency)
Policewomen drag away members of Ladies in White, a women’s dissident group that calls for the release of political prisoners, during the group’s weekly protest in Havana on Sunday.(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
Waves crash well beyond the seawall along Havana’s Malecon as a storm hangs over Cuba for a second straight day.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
President Obama set foot in Cuba on Sunday, the first sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years to visit this island nation, amid hopes that his push to mend a half-century of Cold War enmity will launch a new era of cooperation.
“This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity,” Obama said shortly after Air Force One delivered him, wife Michelle, their two daughters and a large entourage to the rainy Cuban capital.
Under large black umbrellas, Obama and his family were greeted by top Cuban officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the ministry’s Americas director, Josefina Vidal. Obama’s formal welcoming ceremony with President Raul Castro takes place Monday.
Obama is making this trip to solidify his long efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, to make the process irreversible under a future administration, and to improve the United States’ standing throughout Latin America.
In his first act here, Obama met with the staff of the American Embassy, itself established only last summer. He joked about the last U.S. president, Calvin Coolidge, to come to Cuba.
“Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship; it took him three days to get here,” Obama said. “It only took me three hours.”
He said this three-day visit was “only a very first step,” adding, “Como andan?” (“How’s it going?”)
Later, the Obamas toured the architectural gem that is Old Havana, escorted by the city’s historian, Eusebio Leal, who showed them a 19th century portrait of Abraham Lincoln at a colonial-era palace. Crowds outside cheered Obama, who at one point waved to photographers and called out, “Gracias!”
The Obamas also met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the top Roman Catholic official in Cuba who was instrumental, along with Pope Francis, in promoting the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement that led to the December 2014 announcement of renewed diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Since then, the U.S. has lifted numerous restrictions on travel, trade and banking transactions with Cuba. The Castro government, on the other hand, has been slow to follow in kind.
Although Castro is eager to welcome Obama, his government is also determined to reassert its own socialist values that it insists will not be bent to U.S. will.
In recent days, Cuban officials have said that only lifting the half-century-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba — and not the smaller measures announced by the Obama administration — will significantly benefit the Cuban people.
“Certain U.S. government officials have stated lately that the objective of these new measures is to ‘empower’ the Cuban people,” Rodriguez said huffily late last week.
“The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and installed a communist government that would become the Western Hemisphere’s staunchest Cold War foe of the United States.
“In our [new] relationship with the United States, under no circumstance is the realization of internal changes in Cuba on the negotiation table,” he said.
Any additional changes in Cuba, which was already allowing a measure of free enterprise and public expression, will most probably not come until after next month’s annual congress of the Communist Party.
Several hours before Obama’s arrival, Cuban security agents and pro-government demonstrators broke into the weekly protest march by the Ladies in White group, an organization of the wives and daughters of current or former political prisoners.
There was noisy scuffling as the Ladies attempted to stage a sit-in along their weekly route on 5th Avenue, and the pro-government groups shouted slogans honoring the Castros. Plainclothes agents eventually rounded up several dozen members of the Ladies group and hauled them away in buses. It was unclear how long they will be held, but the government wants to prevent meetings of dissidents with the Obama delegation.
The issue continues to roil this historic trip.
The White House has insisted that the president will see whomever he wants.
But a leading human rights activist told the Los Angeles Times that many dissidents were ordered by Cuban security officials to stay inside their homes during Obama’s visit and skip their meeting with him. They plan to defy the order, Elizardo Sanchez said, and U.S. Embassy officials were setting up transportation for the activists.
Such controversy aside, Obama’s visit was met with excitement and enthusiasm from ordinary Cubans.
In the bar at Havana’s Parque Central hotel, Cuban staff gathered around a television to watch Air Force One touch down.
When Obama and his family emerged from the plane, waving, chef Alejandro Chirino laughed and smiled.
“I feel so happy, like the rest of the world,” said Chirino, 43.
Bartender Sahely Monduy said the history-making moment marks the end of an era.
“Right now, we forget the past,” she said. “We need to leave all that has happened between our countries behind.”
Monduy, who has an uncle in Los Angeles, said it’s time Cuba and the U.S., separated by just 90 miles of water, focus on what they have in common. “We are family,” she said.
Guillermo Martin Sanchez, 27, who had ducked under a balcony in Old Havana during the heavy rain, said he hopes Obama’s visit leads to a swift end of the U.S. embargo.
But that will not immediately solve Cuba’s economic woes, Sanchez said.
“The problem here is with our own government and how it runs our economy,” he said. “The price of things goes up quicker than the salaries do.”
He urged Obama to “see the real Cuba, not the one for tourists.”
“He needs to see how we live, how we suffer,” Sanchez said.
Obama believes the steps toward normalization will ultimately benefit U.S. economic and diplomatic interests — the delegation also included business leaders and entrepreneurs such as chef Jose Andres, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and officials of Starwood and Marriott — whereas Cuba will change only at its own, slow pace.
The Cuban government wants to hold its ground against Washington to exhibit strength, especially for its traditional leftist allies and harder-line elements of the government and Cuban society. Obama has been criticized at home for seemingly making numerous concessions in exchange for very little from Havana, but that is how both sides, for different reasons, apparently want it.
“Cuba will change on Cuba’s time,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Costa Rican vice president now at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.
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