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President Obama arrives in Cuba, first visit there by sitting U.S. president in 88 years

Air Force One lands in Havana

 

Making history, Barack Obama arrived in Cuba Sunday afternoon, marking the first time in 88 years that a U.S. president has visited the island.

The president was accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

After being greeted on the tarmac by officials with the Cuban government, Obama, in a heavy rain, entered a waiting car and continued to a hotel to greet staff at the new U.S. Embassy and then join his family for a tour of Old Havana.

On Monday, Obama will hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro and also hold an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs.

Havana's streets were eerily empty ahead Obama's visit.

Families usually found strolling along the Malecon seaside promenade or going out for a late lunch or ice cream had been staying at home.

The country's massive internal security apparatus was on full display. Plainclothes security agents stand on virtually every corner along the president's route, and even major intersections where he wasn't expected.

Cuba has no modern tradition of large crowds gathering without a government call to assemble.

In the momentous visit to Cuba, 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.

Nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and almost a dozen business leaders eager to get a foothold in Cuba, were making the trip, 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 sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since 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."

Many Cubans were staying home in order to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards. By early afternoon the Cuban government didn't appear to be calling out crowds of supporters to welcome Obama, as it has with other visiting dignitaries. The city's seaside Malecon promenade was largely deserted Sunday morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

The president's schedule for his 2 1/2 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.

"I don't think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture," Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of United States affairs, told The Associated Press. "We don't fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people."

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. The Ray arrived in Havana shortly before Obama.

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 with significant pledges from the government to address Washington's human rights concerns.

Hours before Obama's arrival, counterprotesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, with government backers shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. The women were taken into custody by female police officers and loaded onto buses. They're typically detained briefly and then released, in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday.

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.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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