Obama begins historic visit to Cuba

2016-79-2c924ac1-fa47-4c50-9ee5-63e2ff33252fPresident Obama arrived in Cuba on Sunday afternoon, a journey of only 90 miles from U.S. shores that took more than half a century to complete.

Stepping off Air Force One under drizzling skies, the president held an umbrella over his wife, Michelle, as he was greeted by senior Cuban officials.

The Obamas, including the president’s two daughters and his mother-in-law, were met on the tarmac by Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, and Josefina Vidal, the head of the U.S. section of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, as well as Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba. The official welcoming session will take place Monday morning when Obama meets with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the presidential palace.

Obama’s trip here — the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 — comes amid high anticipation and anxiety on the island within both the Communist government and its political opposition. The government hopes the two-day visit will allow it to reap benefits without ceding control, while dissidents on the island want it to speed the pace of change.

An affirmation of his larger foreign policy vision, Obama hopes that reaching out to Cuba will encourage a generational evolution in one of the United States’ most bitter and long-standing adversaries. Just hours before his arrival, there were familiar signs that change will not come easily.

As Sunday-morning Mass ended at Havana’s Santa Rita church, several dozen women in white T-shirts filed out, assembled in rows and began walking silently down the street. A block away, hundreds of uniformed security personnel and plain-clothed men and women stood waiting.

They met at the corner in a melee of shouting and manhandling. The women in white went limp on the pavement, shouting “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” and throwing leaflets into the air. The security teams half-dragged, half-carried them to waiting buses.

A number of men marching with the women were chased, thrown to the curb and handcuffed. As the buses drove away, the protesters lifted defiant fists through the windows while the plain-clothed crowd chanted “This is Fidel’s street!”

The Sunday-morning demonstrations of the Ladies in White dissident group are regular occurrences in Havana. The large size of the security force and the fact that the entire operation was conducted in front of international television cameras were not.

All the cross-currents and contradictions of Cuba and its changing relationship with the United States have been on display over the past two days. On Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard fished out 18 Cubans trying to reach Florida on homemade rafts. They reported that nine others had drowned on the journey.

Late Saturday, the Starwood hotel chain signed a mega-deal with the Cuban government to manage three hotels on the island, the first U.S. entrance into the tourist business here in more than 60 years.

On Sunday morning, Cubans crowded around their televisions to watch a hilarious phone conversation Obama taped Friday with the island’s best-known comedian. (Courtesy Washington Post)

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