Wednesday 28 September 2016

Obama's visit ushers in a new era for Cubans

US President welcomed warmly as he ends decades-long stand-off

Harriet Alexander in Havana

Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30

President Barack Obama tours Old Havana with his family at the start of a three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana
President Barack Obama tours Old Havana with his family at the start of a three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana
Mr Castro and Mr Obama

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met yesterday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the stand-off between the two neighbours.

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Mr Obama, seeing Mr Castro only for the third time in a formal setting, was the first US president in Cuba since 1928.

He turned from sightseeing to state business on his historic Cuba trip, pressing President Castro for economic and democratic reforms while hearing complaints about continued US economic sanctions.

In a long-anticipated moment, they shook hands warmly and smiled for the cameras as they greeted each other at the Revolutionary Palace.

Milestone

It was the two leaders' first meeting since Mr Obama arrived in Cuba on Sunday and a milestone in the new era of closer relations between the two countries.

Mr Obama and Mr Castro exchanged words briefly, although their remarks were not picked up by television cameras nearby.

The men then watched a display of Cuban troops. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and several other US officials looked on.

The pair have met before. They first shook hands in 2013 in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Yesterday they held their fourth meeting, likely their most substantial, at the Palace of the Revolution, where Mr Castro and his predecessor, older brother Fidel Castro, have led Cuba's resistance to US pressure going back decades.

A US presidential visit to the inner sanctum of Cuban power would have been unthinkable before Mr Obama and Mr Castro's rapprochement 15 months ago, when they agreed to end a Cold War-era dispute that lasted five decades and continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Earlier, Mr Obama laid a wreath at the memorial to Jose Marti - a national hero of Cuba.

Hundreds of people had waited in Plaza Catedral for four hours, hoping for a glimpse of the president and his family.

When they arrived, in pouring rain, the crowds began yelling: "Obama!" and straining to see him beneath the Secret Service umbrellas.

As he entered the cathedral, he paused to wave to the crowd, giving rise to whoops and applause.

"We've been sweeping the plaza for a week," said Isabel Comaz Botellon (78), wearing flowers in her hair and a badge depicting the American president pinned to her white overalls.

Several of Havana's streets had been freshly resurfaced in preparation for his visit, and workers had been labouring around the clock to finish the restoration of the Capitolio - a building modelled on the US Capitol, which will eventually house the national assembly.

Mr Obama's trip is designed to cement the ties already formed since the December 2014 announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Last night he was due to attend a business summit and a state dinner.

Today, he will address the nation in an eagerly-anticipated speech, before meeting dissidents and watching a baseball match.

Throng

"We hope that good things will come from this visit," said Orlando Laguardia (84), dancing in the street outside the Bodeguita del Medio - a historic Havana bar.

Posing for the crowds of tourists that now throng the centre of Havana, he held up a sign reading: "Welcome Presidente Obama".

"He's coming at a difficult moment, as he can't say too much in favour of Cuba because there are elections soon in America, and it will harm Hillary.

"But I think maybe he'll announce the closing of the military base in Guantánamo. It's Cuban land, and an affront to us."

Around the corner from the bar, Claudia Cal and Katherine Carmona, both 15, were handing out Palm Sunday fronds inside the Cathedral, where the service was in full swing ahead of Mr Obama's visit.

"First the Pope, now Obama - it's just … Wow!" said Miss Cal, giddy with excitement.

"And on Friday the Rolling Stones! It's amazing. Things are changing so fast."

Irish Independent

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