HAVANA TIMES — Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba after the 1959 revolution. He arrived in Havana in the afternoon for a three-day visit during which he will meet with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, reported dpa news.
The Twitter account of President published a first message of greeting to Cubans moments after Air Force One touched down at 4:18 p.m. local time. ¿Que bolá? said the message, a popular slang greeting often used by younger Cubans.
“Just landed here, waiting to meet and hear directly from Cubans,” the president said in English.
Expectations about Obama’s visit through Tuesday are enormous. In addition to seeing Raul Castro, the US leader will meet with Cuban dissidents and deliver a nationally televised speech from the Havana Grand Theater, in the heart of the city.
According to White House staff, Obama has no plans to see former President Fidel Castro.
The visit is a milestone in the historic thaw the two countries announced in December 2014, after decades of ideological hostilities, which also negatively affected Washington’s relations with Latin America.
Washington and Havana resumed diplomatic relations in July 2015 with the subsequent reopening of embassies in the respective capitals.
Obama arrived on the island with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, as well as a large delegation of senators, congress and business people and athletes.
After meeting with officials at the US Embassy, the Obamas will begin their visit with a stroll through the colonial center of Old Havana. The president will also meet at the Cathedral with the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, one of the few negotiators recognized by the Communist Party outside the Castro government apparatus on the island.
Dissidents arrested before Obama arrived
Dozens of dissidents were arrested hours before the arrival of Obama. The arrests took place around noon in the neighborhood of Miramar, during the march organized every Sunday by the Ladies in White opposition group.
“There is a deliberate climate of political repression on the island for the visit of President Obama,” human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told dpa, in a telephone conversation.
Obama’s official program begins in Havana on Monday.
After laying a wreath to the Cuban national hero Jose Marti in the Plaza of the Revolution, Obama will then meet with his counterpart Raul Castro in the neighboring Palace of the Revolution.
In the afternoon the US leader will hold a forum with representatives of the emerging private sector of the island. The meeting is to take place at the artistic space Cuban Art Factory and is one of the events with which Obama wants to show his support for an opening of the economy by the Castro government.
Since Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2006, he has opened limited spaces to small private enterprise after decades of a full state monopoly. Roughly 5% of Cubans have taken out licenses to work as “self-employed”, according to official figures.
On Tuesday morning, Obama will deliver an unprecedented speech to Cubans from the Havana Grand Theater. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that the address will be broadcast live on state television even if it contains criticism of the Castro government.
Obama will meet later with a dozen opponents of the Castro government at the US embassy. The president had indicated on several occasions that meeting with dissidents was a must if he traveled to Havana.
On Tuesday afternoon Obama will attend a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. Baseball raises passions on both sides of the Florida Straits.
The rapprochement with Cuba is part of a new policy of Obama during his last year in office. The US president wants to promote greater openness on the island through dialogue. Meanwhile, Cuba says it will continue “updating” its socialist system.