Friday 30 September 2016

Dawn of a new era as Obama in Cuba for two-day visit

Julie Pace

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

A tourist poses for a picture with a sign placed at the entrance of a restaurant with the images of Cuban and US Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama in Havana, Cuba. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ
A tourist poses for a picture with a sign placed at the entrance of a restaurant with the images of Cuban and US Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama in Havana, Cuba. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ

US President Barack Obama will today open a new era in the thorny relationship between the US and Cuba during a history-making trip that has two seemingly dissonant goals: locking in his softer approach while also pushing the island's communist leaders to change their ways.

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Obama's two-day visit starting today will be a crowning moment for the ambitious diplomatic experiment that he and President Raul Castro's government announced barely a year ago. After a half-century of acrimony, the two former Cold War foes are now in regular contact. American travellers and businesses are eagerly eyeing opportunities on the island nation 145km south of Florida.

Joined by his family, Obama will stroll the streets of Old Havana and meet with Castro in his presidential offices - images unimaginable just a few years ago. He will sit in the stands with baseball-crazed Cubans for a historic game between their beloved national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

Obama also will meet with political dissidents. Their experiences in the one-party state help explain why some Cuban-Americans see Obama's outreach as a disgraceful embrace of a government whose values betray much of what America stands for.

Increasingly, though, that's becoming a minority view among Cuban-Americans.

White House officials are mindful that Obama cannot appear to gloss over deep differences. Even as the president works toward better ties, his statements alongside Castro and dissidents will be scrutinised for signs of how aggressively he is pushing the Havana government to fulfil promises of reform.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez rebuked Obama ahead of the trip for suggesting that he would use the visit to promote change.

Rodriguez said that many of Obama's policy changes have essentially been meaningless, and he dismissed the notion that Obama was in any position to empower Cubans.

"The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago," Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current government in power.

©Reuters

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