BREAKING: President Obama, First Family land in historic visit to Cuba

Mar 20, 2016 4:20 PM

The Latest on President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba (all times local):

4:20 p.m.

President Barack Obama is in Cuba for a historic visit. It's a big step in efforts to forge new ties between the United States and its one-time foe.

Air Force One just landed in Havana.

The president is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as a group of American lawmakers and business leaders.

What's on tap for the rest of the day?

Obama will greet staff at the new U.S. Embassy and then join his family for a tour of Old Havana.

On Monday, Obama will hold talks with Cuban President Raul Castro and also hold an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs.

Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.


3:25 p.m.

Havana's streets are eerily empty ahead of President Barack Obama's visit.

Families usually found strolling along the Malecon seaside promenade or going out for a late lunch or ice cream have been staying at home.

The country's massive internal security apparatus is on full display. Plainclothes security agents stand on virtually every corner along the president's route, and even major intersections where he isn't expected.

Cuba has no modern tradition of large crowds gathering without a government call to assemble. For trips like Pope Francis' September visit to Cuba, the government gave state workers time off and even transportation to spots along his route.

Ordinary Cubans cited traffic and closure warnings and the lack of government calls to assemble as reasons why they were staying home for the president.


2:35 p.m.

It's not just Cubans who are anxiously anticipating U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival this afternoon.

American travelers in Havana, some of whom booked their trips long before the trip was announced, are tickled to be in town during the historic visit.

Alexandra Perraud is a 25-year-old law school student in Chicago who's spending her spring break studying law at a university in Havana. She says she's "very fortunate to just happen to be here."

Perraud says the Cubans she's met since arriving Friday have all been warm, friendly and eager to talk about Obama, baseball and their excitement about the trip.

She calls this an "extremely exciting moment" and says it's "fabulous" that Cuba and the United States are repairing relations after more than 50 years of acrimony.

Her friend Emily Bitzer is also a law student in Chicago. The 24-year-old says the two countries have much in common and says Obama's visit "will really help sort of get things started with the opening of relations and coming back together."

Perraud and Bitzer are hoping to be able to see Obama at some point, but it won't be at a baseball game between the Tampa Rays and the Cuban national team that he's planning to attend.

They can't make it: They have a class.


2 p.m.

Counter-protesters and police have broken up an anti-government demonstration in Havana hours before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for his historic visit.

About 300 government backers surrounded about 50 members and backers of the Ladies in White group shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. There was some shoving back and forth.

The women were taken into custody by female police officers and loaded onto buses in an operation that lasted about 10 minutes. In such cases, protesters are typically are detained for a few hours and then released.

The number of protesters, counter-protesters and police appeared to be about the same as in past incidents, which take place in the Cuban capital each Sunday after the Ladies attend Catholic Mass, march silently along 5th Avenue and then join other dissidents to try to march into a residential neighborhood.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said before the confrontation she would like to tell Obama that "when you do business with a totalitarian government, you have to set conditions."

She says that she's among a group of dissidents invited to meet with Obama and intends to do so. In the past, Soler declined a similar invitation from Secretary of State John Kerry.


1:45 p.m.

Nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and almost a dozen CEOs are joining President Barack Obama for his trip to Cuba.

The White House says eight U.S. senators and 31 members of the House are traveling to Cuba. Most, like Obama, are Democrats. But a few Republicans are also along. They include Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford.

The White House made arrangements for an additional plane to accommodate intense congressional interest in the trip. But a few lawmakers managed to hop a ride on Air Force One, including Flake, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. All are supporters of Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

The CEOs of Xerox, Marriott, PayPal and other U.S. companies are also traveling to Cuba. So is an executive from CleBer, which has been approved to open the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

While in Cuba, Obama plans to meet with local entrepreneurs to shine a spotlight on Cuba's nascent private-sector economy. A number of U.S. companies are announcing plans to start operations on the island.


1:35 p.m.

One of the Cuban officials negotiating the normalization of relations with the United States says his country has no fear of being overwhelmed by American business and popular culture as ties between the two Cold War enemies are rebuilt.

Even Cubans critical of their government say they fear that U.S. consumerism will change the languidly paced, family-centered life that many Cubans see as one of the main appeals of life on the island.

Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of United States affairs, says Cuba's experience as a virtual colony of the United States in the first half of the 20th century has prepared its people to maintain their cultural and economic independence even as American business people, tourists and perhaps consumer goods flood the island.

He tells The Associated Press that he doesn't "think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture." He adds, "We don't fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people."


12:50 p.m.

Havana's airport is showing signs of stress as it prepares for Air Force One to arrive.

Obama will land at Jose Marti International Airport on Sunday afternoon. It's the same airport where Cuban President Raul Castro greeted Pope Francis during his historic trip last year.

American journalists and White House officials traveling to Havana on a chartered flight got a firsthand taste of how Obama's high-profile trip is testing Cuba's careworn infrastructure. The flight was kept in a holding pattern in Cuban airspace for much of an hour after the captain was informed the airport had been temporarily shut down.

At the airport, Cuba's main gateway to the skies, cellphone service alternates between spotty and nonfunctional.

Commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba are expected to resume this year following a deal the U.S. and Cuba reached. That includes as many as 20 flights per day to Havana and others to smaller Cuban airports.


12:40 p.m.

Cuba's minister of foreign trade and investment is calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to extend measures easing the U.S. embargo.

The Obama administration recently announced it was making it easier for U.S. companies to do business with Cuba's budding private sector and also telecommunications concerns.

But Foreign Trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca notes that state-run enterprises still control most of the Cuban economy.

He says U.S. authorities "have maintained a discriminatory fence in relation to the public sector."

Malmierca on Sunday acknowledged that Washington has made significant policy changes such as ending a prohibition on Cuban financial transactions passing through U.S. banks.

But he said their true effect will have to be judged in results going forward.


12:30 p.m.

A small group of Cuban dissidents are carrying out an anti-government demonstration in Havana hours before U.S. President Barack Obama is set to arrive.

Members of the Ladies in White group are attending Mass at a Catholic Church as about 10 other dissidents have gathered in a park outside.

Two men are holding a hand-lettered sign that says: "Obama, traveling to Cuba is not fun. No more human rights violations."

For the last year, weekly Sunday marches by the Ladies with other government opponents have routinely been broken up by counter-protesters and then the police, who round up the dissidents, load them on buses and detain them briefly.

Former political prisoner Angel Moya says they want to send a message to Obama that "this is not the time for the president to visit Cuba. He said he would only come when there were improvements on human rights, and in practice the Cuban government is oppressing (us) more."

Dissidents alleged that some of their numbers were prevented by authorities from attending the demonstration.


12:00 p.m.

One of the hottest tickets during U.S. President Obama's historic visit to Havana is a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba's national team.

Unfortunately for most fans, it's invite-only.

The national sporting authority says seats will be allotted through organizations like government-authorized student groups, workplaces and sports clubs.

It said in state media on Sunday that the general public can follow the game live on radio and TV, however.

Obama is expected to attend Tuesday's game, the first involving a Major League Baseball team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played two exhibition matches in 1999.

Workers recently spruced up Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano, which is home to the Cuban baseball league's most prominent team, Industriales.

Admission to the stadium is normally open, and costs just pennies.

Restricting access to the game essentially ensures a well-behaved crowd and little chance of interruption by political dissidents.


11:10 a.m.

There's at least one place in Cuba where the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama isn't the center of attention: That's in the country's state-run newspapers.

Cuban media are publishing photographs of retired leader Fidel Castro meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who arrived Friday for a state visit.

Venezuela has been a close ally of Cuba under Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. The two countries have done billions of dollars' worth in trade, with oil from Venezuela and Cuba sending thousands of doctors, sports trainers and other specialists to the South American nation.

As Cuba awaits a historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama later Sunday, it's a signal that renewed relations with Washington are not diminishing Havana's support for Venezuela's socialist government.

The photographs of Maduro and Fidel Castro were posted Sunday in government newspapers and on the Cubadebate website, which said the encounter took place the previous day.

They met in the home where Castro typically is pictured receiving foreign dignitaries. He was shown seated in a rolling chair wearing sandals and a track suit and gesturing as he spoke with Maduro.


10:35 a.m.

Cubans are excitedly anticipating the first visit to Cuba by a sitting American president in almost nine decades.

Carlos Maza is a 48-year-old refrigerator repairman who says he's never seen anything like it in his life and calls it "incredible."

Maza hopes U.S. businesspeople and tourists will help the economy improve. He says change has been slow in Cuba, but the diplomatic opening is "a big step forward."

Xiomara Sanchez said she feels "proud that (Obama) is coming to Cuba to find a way toward a friendship, a family, with us."

The 60-year-old cafeteria worker also sees change happening slowly: "It hasn't done much, but it has created some change."

In his historic visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama is relegating decades of American acrimony with the communist country further into the past and cementing a new relationship between the Cold War-era foes.

Obama's arrival Sunday afternoon was eagerly anticipated in the capital, where workers were cleaning up Old Havana and giving buildings a fresh coat of paint. American flags were raised alongside the Cuban colors in parts of the city, creating an improbable image for those who have lived through a half-century of bitterness between the two countries.

Joining the president for the short flight to the island just 90 miles off the U.S. shore were first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha. Nearly 40 U.S. lawmakers and almost a dozen business leaders eager to get a foothold in Cuba, were making the trip, too.

For Obama, the diplomatic opening is a centerpiece of his foreign policy legacy and the fulfillment of his pledge to engage directly with longtime American enemies. Persistent differences remain, including Havana's frustration with the U.S. economic embargo and Washington's condemnation of Cuba's human rights record. But the economic and political relationship has changed rapidly in the 15 months since Obama and President Raul Castro restored ties.

"The more that U.S. businesses are engaged there, the more that we have people traveling there, the more Cuban-Americans are able to interact with family members that in some cases they haven't seen in decades, the more likely we are to see the kind of changes that all of us are hoping for," Obama said in an interview with CNN en Espanol.

Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge arrived in a battleship.

This is an incredible thing," said Carlos Maza, a 48-year-old refrigerator repairman from Havana. "In almost 90 years no American president has come here to Cuba. It's a big step forward."

Many Cubans were staying home in order to avoid extensive closures of main boulevards. By early afternoon the Cuban government didn't appear to be calling out crowds of supporters to welcome Obama, as it has with other visiting dignitaries. The city's seaside Malecon promenade was largely deserted Sunday morning except for a few cars, joggers, fishermen and pelicans.

The president's schedule for his 2 1/2 day visit is jam-packed, including official meetings with Castro and an event with U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs. But much of Obama's visit was about appealing directly to the Cuban people and celebrating the island's vibrant culture.

"I don't think that the Cuban people are going to be bewitched by North American culture," Gustavo Machin, Cuba's deputy director of United States affairs, told The Associated Press. "We don't fear ties with the United States. I trust the historical, patriotic roots of the Cuban people."

Shortly after arriving, the Obama family was to tour Old Havana, including the Havana Cathedral, with a greeting from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who helped facilitate months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials that led to the normalization of diplomatic relations in December 2014.

A highlight of Obama's visit comes Tuesday when he joins Castro and a crowd of baseball-crazed Cubans for a game between the beloved national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.

Obama planned a speech at the Grand Theater of Havana laying out his vision for greater freedoms and more economic opportunity in Cuba.

Two years after taking power in 2008, Castro launched economic and social reforms that appear slow-moving to many Cubans and foreigners, but are lasting and widespread within Cuban society. The changes have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to work in the private sector and have relaxed limits on cellphones, Internet and Cubans' comfort with discussing their country's problems in public, for example.

The Cuban government has been unyielding, however, on making changes to its single-party political system and to the strict limits on media, public speech, assembly and dissent.

Obama intended to talk with Cuban dissidents, a meeting the White House said was a prerequisite for the visit. But there were no expectations that he would leave Cuba with significant pledges from the government to address Washington's human rights concerns.

Hours before Obama's arrival, counterprotesters and police broke up an anti-government demonstration by the Ladies in White group, with government backers shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. The women were taken into custody by female police officers and loaded onto buses. They're typically detained briefly and then released, in a scene that plays out in Havana each Sunday.

A major focus for Obama was pushing his Cuba policy to the point where it will be all but impossible for the next American president to reverse it.

That includes highlighting new business deals by American companies, including Starwood, which finalized an agreement Saturday to renovate and run three hotels on the island. Just before the trip, the U.S. gave San Francisco-based online lodging service Airbnb a special license allowing travelers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba.



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