Wednesday 1 March 2017

Barack Obama becomes first US president in 90 years to visit Cuba

Cuban president Raul Castro shakes hands with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace (AP)
Cuban president Raul Castro shakes hands with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in Revolution Palace (AP)
Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the island in nearly 90 years. (AP Photo/Fernando Medina)
US President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and their daughters Malia and Sasha, exit Air Force One as they arrive at Havana's international airport for a three-day trip, in Havana March 20, 2016. Reuters/Carlos Barria
U.S. President Barack Obama's daughters Malia (centre) and Sasha (right) arrive with their parents at the Jose Marti international airport at the start of a three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 20, 2016. Reuters/Carlos Barria
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet children and families of US embassy personnel during an event at the Melia Habana Hotel in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
People climb a window grate as they get wet in the rain, in hopes of catching a glimpse of President Barack Obama during his visit to Cathedral Square in Old Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
U.S. President Barack Obama walks with first lady Michelle Obama, who is holding the arm of her mother Marian Robinson, during a walking tour of Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Local Cubans watch from their homes as the motorcade of U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in a section of Old Havana, Sunday, March 20. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama waves upon arrival to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016.(AP Photo/Fernando Medina)
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet children and families of embassy personnel during an event at Melia Habana Hotel, in Havana. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Air Force One parks with President Barack Obama and his family inside, soon after arriving for a three-day visit, in Havana March 20, 2016. Reuters/Stringer

US President Barack Obama has started an extraordinary visit to Cuba, eager to push decades of acrimony deeper into the past and forge irreversible ties with America's former adversary.

Mr Obama's whirlwind trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's effort to restore normal relations between their countries.

While deep differences persist, the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since the leaders vowed a new beginning.

Wielding an umbrella on a rainy Havana afternoon, Mr Obama and his family stepped off of Air Force One and were greeted by senior Cuban officials - but not Mr Castro. The Cuban leader frequently greets major world figures at Jose Marti International Airport, but he was absent on the tarmac. Instead, he plans to greet Mr Obama at the Palace of the Revolution.

Mr Obama's national security team said it was "never contemplated or discussed" that Mr Castro would be at the airport, adding that the Cubans consider the palace ceremony as the official welcome event.

"This is a historic visit," Mr Obama said as he greeted US embassy staff and their families at a Havana hotel. "It's an historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people."

Joined by wife Michelle and his two daughters, he toured Old Havana by foot, walking gingerly on the slippery wet stones in front of Havana Cathedral. A few hundred people in the square erupted in applause and shouted his name as the family stepped forward.

Approaching the Plaza de Armas, a leafy square in a tenderly restored corner of Old Havana, the Obamas were greeted by buoyant chants of "USA, USA".

For more than 50 years, Cuba was an unimaginable destination for a US president, as well as most American citizens. The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution sparked fears of communism spreading to the Western Hemisphere. Domestic politics in both countries contributed to the continued estrangement well after the Cold War ended.

Ahead of Mr Obama's arrival, counter-protesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, whose members were taken into custody by female police officers in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday. They are typically detained briefly and then released.

Mr Obama's visit was highly anticipated in Cuba, where workers cleaned up the streets in Old Havana and gave buildings a fresh coat of paint. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colours in parts of the capital, an improbable image for those who have lived through half a century of bitterness between the two countries.

But many Cubans stayed home to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards.

Press Association

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